When the Dutch attacker was substituted late on in the record-breaking 7-0 mauling, he departed to thunderous applause from an appreciative Anfield.
It wasn’t just the brilliance of his finishing that caught the eye, it was the accomplished manner in which he led the line throughout. Pace, strength, intelligent movement, vision and a clinical edge — United just couldn’t handle him.
“Cody’s best game for Liverpool. It’s been a short Liverpool career so far, but I thought he was outstanding. The confidence he showed,” said left-back Andy Robertson.
Rewind a month and Liverpool were reeling from a wretched 3-0 defeat to Wolves that left them 11 points adrift of the top four.
Gakpo had failed to score in his first six appearances after his January move from PSV Eindhoven for an initial fee of £37million ($44.1m) and was struggling to make his mark in a team devoid of belief.
Since then, the landscape has shifted considerably. A return of 13 points from the past 15 on offer has taken Jurgen Klopp’s resurgent side to within touching distance of the Champions League spots and, during that run, Gakpo has netted four goals in 316 minutes of top-flight action (one every 79 minutes).
No wonder he’s had a spring in his step at Kirkby this week after the side were granted two days off in the wake of demolishing United.
“Cody is just a great boy,” Liverpool assistant manager Pep Lijnders tells The Athletic. “He’s got a special skill set but above all, he’s a good fit for our style. He has personality, he assumes responsibility in the game, and he thinks two or three steps ahead.
“Not many players have that combination. We are really happy we could add him to our team.”
What’s changed of late? Gakpo has benefited from the collective improvement. The spine of Klopp’s side has been bolstered by the return to fitness of centre-back Ibrahima Konate alongside Virgil van Dijk and the welcome sight of Fabinho looking more like his usual self in midfield.
Yet it goes much deeper than that. Having understandably needed a period of adjustment in terms of what Klopp wants from him tactically, Gakpo is getting up to speed.
He’s been increasingly used through the middle rather than out on the left, which is where he scored 13 goals and contributed 17 assists in 24 games for PSV in the first half of the season. He has embraced the challenge of learning a new role as Klopp’s false nine, as underlined by his open-play touch maps below.
In his first six games, the greatest concentration of his touches were wide on the left:
In his second six games, Gakpo’s greater concentration of touches are in more central positions, leading to more goal involvements:
Staff believe time spent on the training field and in the video analysis room is paying dividends. The game against United certainly showcased how the understanding is growing between him, Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah.
It helps that Gakpo is such a student of the game. Prior to arriving at Liverpool, he had been working with Tactalyse, a company founded by Dutchman Loran Vrielink, studying video clips in a bid to improve elements of his game such as creating and exploiting space.
There is admiration at Kirkby for how he handled the scrutiny and spotlight that inevitably accompanied that tricky opening month on Merseyside.
Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman publicly questioned whether the 23-year-old had joined Liverpool too early in his development, while PSV manager Ruud van Nistelrooy said Gakpo should have taken his advice to stay put until the end of the season and then sign for Manchester United this summer.
Prior to the Merseyside derby, Gakpo coolly dismissed suggestions he had made a mistake joining a club enduring such a slump, as he declared: “I see every difficulty as a possibility.”
What Cody Gakpo will bring to Liverpool: Speed, versatility and instinctive finishing
His calm, laid-back character has helped in terms of ignoring the outside noise. So, too, has his Christian faith and staying away from social media — he hasn’t posted to his 1.1million Instagram followers since the transfer to Liverpool was announced.
Fellow Dutchman Virgil van Dijk, who was influential in convincing Gakpo that he could realise his dreams at Anfield, has been a source of great support.
They live close to each other in Cheshire after Gakpo moved into a house with his girlfriend Noa van der Bij. That has further helped the settling-in process after initially staying at Liverpool’s Titanic Hotel.
His family have been regular visitors and he is not short of advice given their sporting prowess. His dad Johnny played football for Togo and his mother Ank was a Dutch rugby international. Proud brothers Sydney and Duuk were always convinced their sibling, who grew up idolising PSV’s Ibrahim Afellay, was destined for the top.
Liverpool were equally convinced about his talent after he had been extensively tracked by chief scout Barry Hunter and head of recruitment Dave Fallows.
In December they moved fast to out-flank rivals for his signature, with sporting director Julian Ward working through Christmas Day and Boxing Day to thrash out an agreement with PSV’s Marcel Brands. There was late interest from Chelsea but Gakpo’s mind was made up.
Klopp admired his versatility and that’s certainly been evident so far. It was noticeable against United how Nunez and Gakpo switched positions at times. It’s fluid, but it’s Gakpo who appears better suited to dropping off into space centrally, giving Liverpool an extra man in midfield when required, linking play and fulfilling the role Roberto Firmino carried out for so long.
A good example of Gakpo ‘being Bobby’ against United came in the 14th minute when he first pressed Diogo Dalot and blocked his attempted backward pass.
Antony pounced on the loose ball but was dribbling towards his own half. Gakpo was part of a three-man press, with the Dutchman winning the ball back.
He played a simple pass to Henderson before noticing where the space was and moved into it to receive possession.
It allowed him to drive forward into space…
… but United blocked passes to Nunez and Salah, so the attack slowed, with Gakpo retaining possession and recycling the attack.
Disrupting out of possession and finding pockets of space are where Firmino was at his best.
The difference between the two players is the speed with which Gakpo carries the ball. He can glide away from opponents and use his strength to hold them off.
Isolated when he received a pass from Nunez against Real Madrid, he took an intelligent touch away from two players.
He moved Liverpool from their own half into Madrid territory, all while under heavy pressure from Eduardo Camavinga.
He released a pass to Salah, who drove into the box but dragged a shot wide.
Similarly, against Everton, he turned Seamus Coleman and ran away from Idrissa Gueye.
He carried the ball from his own half to the edge of Everton’s area…
… before sliding a pass to Nunez. The Uruguayan curled his first-time shot wide.
Key to flourishing as a Liverpool No 9 is being confident in receiving a pass in any situation. The ability to control the ball is essential.
Gakpo’s first touch was crucial for his second goal against Manchester United and it is a standout feature of his game. It allowed him to immediately drive forward.
He showed patience, not forcing a pass to Salah but rather waiting until the passing lane opened up and releasing his team-mate with a perfectly weighted pass.
His job was not done and Gakpo showed his desire to score goals by continuing his run in support. It was similar to Liverpool’s first goal against Everton, but Salah finished that move from Nunez’s pass, with Gakpo ready to pounce.
As Salah left Lisandro Martinez perplexed, this time it was Gakpo who arrived in the box untracked.
Salah completed the long-range one-two and Gakpo finished superbly, clipping his shot past David de Gea.
His first goal was equally as good. This also showcased his movement and anticipation.
As Alisson’s pass found Robertson, Gakpo was already exploiting the space between Dalot and Raphael Varane.
The Scottish full-back delayed his pass but Gakpo was alert to make a run behind and inside Fred.
Robertson’s defence-splitting pass found him and he skipped past Varane before curling an effort into the far corner.
While operating as a central striker, Gakpo often drifts left, where he was electric for PSV in the first half of this season.
This was his starting position for his first Liverpool goal as Robertson broke away from a handful of Everton players to open the game up.
Robertson shifted the ball to Salah, who fed Alexander-Arnold. His cross was deflected but found Gakpo at the back post for a tap-in.
Similarly, he began on the left for his goal against Newcastle and played his part in the build-up.
He laid the ball off to Fabinho before he darted towards the box. The Brazilian, meanwhile, fired a pass into Salah on the edge of the box.
Gakpo’s movement and anticipation allowed him to latch onto Salah’s pass into the box and score.
Being a No 9 for Liverpool is about more than just scoring goals. Helping to build attacks through dribbling is as important as knitting play together with passes.
His role in the second goal against Wolverhampton Wanderers was simple but significant. His one-two with Kostas Tsimikas released the Greek defender…
… who drove into the box and crossed the ball for Salah to finish.
Before the goals came, Klopp was keen to highlight Gakpo’s impressive work rate off the ball. As Liverpool’s attackers have returned from injury, their pressing has improved and the January signing has been central to that, particularly counter-pressing.
After a pass from Stefan Bajcetic forced him into a 50-50 challenge with Luka Modric…
The ball fell to Dani Carvajal, but Gakpo did not give up.
As the defender dawdled on the ball, Gakpo nicked it from him and was immediately in the Madrid box.
“There were easier moments to join Liverpool,” admitted Klopp shortly after the deal for Gakpo was secured. During their first conversation, the manager picked up on the fact the player didn’t bring up the topic of the club being in danger of missing out on Champions League qualification.
“What I like about this is that he is obviously a guy who doesn’t want to jump on a running train. He wants to push the train. I like that a lot,” Klopp said.
That train is back up and running. And Gakpo is helping to power it.
(Top photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)