If there was any saving grace for Louis Van Gaal’s Netherlands team after they dropped a lead, and two points, to slump to a 1-1 draw against Ecuador, it is yet another top-draw performance from Cody Gakpo.
The 23-year-old winger sealed his place in the team after it was his late header that opened the scoring for Le Oranje against Senegal, and it was his sensational finish from 20 yards, latching on to a Davy Klaasen backheel, that put the side in the lead. Netherlands managed the game poorly from there, and were second best for the majority of it, but Gakpo’s star had risen even more with the goal.
Born to a father from Togo with Ghanaian ancestry – a country that attempted to naturalise him and make him play for them – ever since his days as a junior player, Gakpo has shown considerable promise at his home club PSV Eindhoven. Regular supporters of the Dutch Eredivisie, and of PSV, know that these performances are nothing new.
Despite choosing to stay at his boyhood club at the very last moment at the end of this summer transfer window, he has been on a tear this year. He has scored 13 goals and made 17 assists in 24 appearances, including two hattricks – the leading number of goal contributions out of any player in the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, and Eredivisie.
A mercurial winger, Gakpo’s greatest strengths are the sheer physicality of his playing style, cutting in from the left inside channel with marauding runs full of dribbling skills and pace, all while having the strength to shrug off opposing defenders. Van Gaal believes Gakpo could be the breakout star of the tournament.
“He is a player with a lot of talent and possibilities,” he told The Guardian. “He is young and is a player who is still evolving and has a lot of room for improvement and has a personality that will do everything that it takes. Whether he will be a star at this World Cup, I don’t know, but it is possible.” The possibility has become a reality.
Prior to this World Cup, there was interest from many English teams, including Manchester United, to sign the 23-year-old in the summer. Gakpo’s performances, on the biggest stage of them all may well have increased his value by some tens of millions. He already had options during the summer, and was in advanced talks with multiple teams before a last-minute U-turn to stay in the Netherlands. His reason to do so? A conversation with Van Gaal, who advised him to prioritise playing time ahead of a high-profile move in a World Cup year.
And that he has been the biggest highlight of this Dutch team in Qatar is not in question. Both his goals were different, and equally effective. The first, against Senegal, was a well-timed late run into the box and leaping header, seeing Frenkie De Jong in space to give him the option to play one of the assists of the tournament. The second, on Friday, a brilliant curler from range.
He’s a big asset for the Dutch over the next month, but as soon as their campaign ends, expect clubs – and PSV manager Ruud van Nistelrooy has said there is interest from all over Europe – to circle him for his signature. Having stamped his class at this tournament, he will be commanding big money.