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Netherlands’ rising star Gakpo poised for a breakout World Cup

Netherlands’ rising star Gakpo poised for a breakout World Cup


The PSV supporters weren’t sure if Cody Gakpo’s hat trick in their 7-1 win over Volendam on Aug. 31 was him saying farewell or just the next stage of his European takeover at his boyhood club. The masterclass came just a day before the transfer window shut in the Premier League.

Just four miles away, there was a plane readied at Eindhoven airport from one Premier League club ready to take him to the UK and sign for them. Other scouts in the stands of the Phillips Stadium were weighing up whether to advise their bosses to make a late push for the incredibly talented 23-year-old, but Gakpo, a 6-foot-2 winger who can also play in front of goal, decided to stay at PSV.

With Manchester United, Southampton and Leeds all circling, he sought the counsel of Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal. Van Gaal advised Gakpo that in a World Cup year he should prioritise minutes at PSV over the unpredictability of the Promised Land of the Premier League.

“During the transfer window you constantly wonder, ‘What’s going to happen? What will I do?’ Every day could be your last [at PSV],” Gakpo tells ESPN. “It weighs down on you, at least it did on me.” Gakpo weighed up the pros and cons of moving, but took Van Gaal’s advice to heart and ultimately stayed.

And now on the eve of the biggest event in men’s football, Gakpo heads into the tournament as an indispensable member of the Netherlands squad, backed with a remarkable return of 13 goals and 17 assists so far for PSV this season, the leading combined tally out of any player in the Premier League, Serie A, LaLiga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and Eredivisie.

That match against Volendam was just one of several remarkable performances from Gakpo this season. His hat trick included a trademark strike. For his second of the three, Gakpo ran at the defence from the left, cut inside and drilled a low shot across the goalkeeper into the corner. PSV fans have become accustomed to seeing that sight, but it doesn’t make it any less impressive when you watch him in full flight.

For Twan Scheepers, who coached Gakpo back in his early days at the PSV Eindhoven academy, he has seen that type of goal countless times from Gakpo. Now as the assistant coach of Eredivisie side Utrecht, he has viewed Gakpo’s incredible season with a mixture of pride, enjoyment and, also, a dab of daunting horror as twice a year he must formulate a plan to stop him.

Scheepers worked at PSV’s academy from 2006, and came across Gakpo in 2007 at the under-11s. “He came along very well, and first time we met, all of the coaches at PSV had a good feeling about Cody,” Scheepers tells ESPN. “He loves football — it’s in his heart, he’s a natural, a lot of skills, a lot of speed. Cody was determined to get better every day, because he loves the game … that’s one of the best things that he has, also his skills of course. But that love for the game, wanting to train and play every day to get better — that in a nutshell is Cody Gakpo, who is a great personality and becoming a great player.”

Scheepers highlights the importance of Gakpo’s family in his development. His father, Johnny, is from Togo; his mother, Ank, played rugby for Netherlands; and he has two brothers. “His parents are very solid, don’t do stupid things — the parents, family, friends and Cody and his brothers, they did a great job in not pushing him too much,” Scheepers says. “They wanted to show that life is good. They are a religious family. I think that’s important and a big thing in the world, he’s quite relaxed. The only thing that matters to him is playing the game, and nothing bothers him around it.”

The PSV crowd love him, not only because of his match-changing ability, but also because he’s one of their own. The walls of the PSV museum in the depths of the Philips Stadium are covered with photos and shirts of the club’s legends featuring stars like Romario, Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam, Phillip Cocu, Mark van Bommel. There are the 24 Eredivisie shields the club have won, sitting alongside their Champions League title from 1988, and UEFA Cup from 1978. But sitting pride of place is the wall talking about the club’s academy and their homegrown players. Memphis Depay and Ibrahim Afellay feature prominently here, but so does Gakpo, the man who was raised in the district Stratum and learned his craft in the red and white of the Boeren.

“The supporters and fans love him as he’s from Eindhoven and he’s a boy from there and they’re very, very proud of him. We had some similarities as I was also from Eindhoven and I played in the academy to the first team and became a two-time champion, and had the cup,” Scheepers says. “He talks a lot about that and how that feels. It feels like magic. And being a champion with PSV is a dream come true.

“I think playing for the first team, he started with a dream and we had an agreement that before he leaves the club, first he has to be a champion and then go abroad. At this point they’re happy he stayed and working towards the World Cup — maybe next year, who knows what’s in his path. But first he must make his dream come true to be a champion from Eindhoven with PSV.”

The summer was an uncertain time for Gakpo. Manchester United were linked with him for much of the transfer window, and he revealed he had held talks with Erik ten Hag about a potential move. Speaking after PSV’s win over Excelsior on Aug. 28, he said: “It’s going to be hectic, I think. There is interest, but I have always said that the whole picture has to be right. It’s a puzzle. I have to see which puzzle is the most correct. But there are also other options. [Manchester] United is a serious option.”

Leeds United and Southampton were also chasing him, with both making late approaches for the forward. Gakpo was frequently asked about what he was thinking, and whether he was going to stay at PSV. “I always try to be honest and sincere,” he said. “I usually say that I don’t know yet and that’s the truth. In the end, I weighed up all of my options.”

At the time he tried to park any thoughts of a move, but later admitted to ESPN it “probably played a role” in distracting him at a “subconscious level.” In the end, that match against Volendam proved to be yet another line written in his PSV story, rather than the finishing point, as he opted to stay at his boyhood club. Gakpo wanted first-team football, and to play in Europe.

With the window shut, he spoke to PSV’s in-house TV channel in early September and said he was “glad” the window was over. “It was also a bit last-minute,” Gakpo said. “Last week I thought I would go to Manchester and then you may have to choose another club in a week. That’s not nice for me and PSV, it feels a bit rushed. Ultimately, the choice fell on PSV.”

While PSV felt the pressure to let Gakpo leave to bolster their own accounts, the player himself turned to Netherlands boss Van Gaal for advice. “He thought I should follow my gut feeling, but also said that a transfer in a World Cup year would not really be ideal, also because of adjustment,” Gakpo said. “I agreed with him.”

The decision to stay meant Gakpo has been pivotal in PSV’s Europa League campaign. One of the detractions around Gakpo has been he struggles to find his best form against harder opposition. The match at the Emirates against Arsenal added fuel to that theory as he struggled to have any influence on the match having been marked out of the game by Takehiro Tomiyasu. But a week later, he was sensational, having two goals disallowed but also contributing an assist by dropping a corner on Luuk de Jong’s head. A fortnight on and again he was brilliant in PSV’s win at Ajax, chipping in with an assist for De Jong’s opener.

“The away match at Arsenal was just a really tough match,” he tells ESPN. “But in the home games last year against Benfica, Real Sociedad and Monaco I played really well. I never started doubting myself, and felt I had to prove it. I know I can [play well], but you have to show it, so it’s great when that happens.”

But as Scheepers said, fuelling all of this is a constant desire to improve. The man himself feels he can improve his trademark dart of cutting in from the left and shifting the ball to his right foot to shoot across the keeper, just like he did in PSV’s 1-0 win over Heerenveen in early October. “I think I can be more accurate,” Gakpo says. “I often make the move without scoring a goal so I need to be more efficient. If I make my move more aggressively, or time it more sharply, I can shoot right away and will be able to score more goals. That’s definitely something I can improve.”

Scheepers would like to see him add more unpredictability to his attacking game. “He has a fantastic cross, a fantastic pass — his assists and goals are spectacular in the Dutch league,” he says. “But if one day he’s in the Premier League, he could accelerate more into the inside as well as the outside, change his game towards more the left foot so he has to be able to change his game from inside to outside. And use his left foot more and be a pain to the defenders. That’s what he could work on maybe, but you see him evolving over the last 12 months.”

PSV head into the World Cup break equal on points with Ajax at the top of the Eredivisie. Gakpo promises to be one of the stars of the tournament, and it’ll only add to the interest around him with Europe’s biggest clubs inevitably circling once again in January.

Netherlands open their World Cup campaign against Senegal on Nov. 21. Van Gaal will likely deploy a 3-4-1-2 formation with Gakpo slotting in behind forwards Memphis and Steven Bergwijn. It’s been one of those pre-tournament narratives over where he’d fit in, but it’s all part of Van Gaal’s master plan. “He asked me which position I preferred, and that’s the left flank,” Gakpo said. “But in this system, Memphis is usually the left striker. That means you have little to no chance of playing there, because he’s playing. He thought that with my skills I should be able to play in the No. 10 position.

“We talked about this and he put me in that position twice: in the home game against Wales and away at Poland, and also in the second half against Belgium.” Against Wales he scored their second in a 3-2 victory (a run off the left, and neat finish with his right) and he also scored a neatly timed six-yard tap-in for their opener in the 2-0 win in Poland.

When asked if that’s his spot now for the World Cup, and whether Van Gaal had made the correct call in playing him there, Gakpo responds, “The coach is often right.”

But for Scheepers, he’d prefer to see Gakpo in his natural spot. “Cody is a very intelligent player. I know he likes to play with his nose to goal and make a dribble, or accelerate with a lot of pace, but he can do it,” he said. “His best position is on the left — so if you play with three strikers then … That’s where you let him play. You can play with two strikers but that’s not really his best position. He wants to be at the World Cup — that’s part of playing at PSV in playing every game and showing Louis van Gaal that he’s ready and fit, so that’s the main reason that he stayed at PSV.”

It’s been Gakpo’s lifelong dream to play in the World Cup, but once the next six weeks have played out to their natural outcome, the focus will be back on him, PSV and his future. With PSV still playing in three competitions, the hope in Eindhoven is that he’ll see out the season before moving on. Again there’ll be interest in him, with Van Nistelrooy saying in September it’s not just the Premier League clubs who are monitoring the situation.

For Scheepers, he’s not worried about where Gakpo ends up next. While some players from the Eredivisie have struggled to adapt in the English top flight — like Donny van de Beek at Man United — Scheepers is confident he’ll be a success. “You don’t get a lot of time to develop yourself in a new environment,” he says. “You have to be very skillful, and on top, there has to be luck. I know it’s a dream to play in the Premier League. Who knows, I really hope he makes the best choice, and I’m not afraid of that. He’s a smart and intelligent guy so I’m not worrying about that at all.”

Gakpo looks back on the summer window now with a little more ease. “The last window was the first time I was faced with such decisions,” he says. But looking ahead, with the rest of the season to play out and as PSV’s captain, the promise of potential silverware lying in wait in May, he’s not going to get caught up in the rumours around his future with Arsenal and Liverpool added to his ever-lengthening list of admirers.

“The last transfer window was exciting,” Gakpo says. “But for myself, for my family and the people around me, we’ve left that behind now. There’s another window approaching, and you never know what will happen.”


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