The face of a well-engineered PSV team poised to make a deep run in the Europa League, and a breakout star for the Oranje, Cody Gakpo is quietly becoming one of Europe’s finest players.

Before he led the World Cup field in goals scored (tied with a few others) and helped the Netherlands to a first-place finish in the group stage, Gakpo was running circles around Eredivisie defenders.

He had 12 league goals and 12 league assists for PSV last season, but he is already on pace to break that benchmark.

Gakpo already has nine Eredivisie goals and 12 assists in just 14 matches. He led his team to the KNVB Cup, won Dutch Footballer of the Year, and multiple Player of the Month awards; all at the age of 22.

Now 23, Gakpo has taken his game from the Netherlands to Qatar as he wows fans and scouts alike.

Yet how can you explain the youngster’s sudden burst in quality? Well, it certainly has been coming.

Rising through the ranks

Cody Gakpo’s rapid rise has centered around one city: Eindhoven. His roots to the city can be traceed back to 1999, when he was born.

It was only natural he gravitated towards Jong PSV as a young child. He joined the elite academy at age, and steadily progressed through the age levels.

For the most part, Gakpo remained an undiscovered talent, someone only analysed by PSV senior team scouts and interested bystanders who wanted to know more about the winger.

But Gakpo really started heating up in 2017, where he scored seven goals in just 13 games in the Eerste Divisie.

Gakpo earned serious attention a year later when he scored 10 goals and assisted four times in just 11 games for Jong PSV.

His extraordinary performances earned him a call-up to his boyhood club in 2019, where it took him some time to get used to the Eredivisie’s fast-paced nature.

Gakpo was definitely a key player in PSV’s COVID-stricken campaigns. Over two years, he totaled 14 goals and 9 assists.

Yet Gakpo’s 2021-22 season earned him the attention of Premier League scouts everywhere. Primary striker Donyell Malen leaving for Dortmund and a position change to left wing was the catalyst for his breakout season.

He totaled 21 goals and 15 assists in all competition. He was as skilled creating chances as he was finishing them. Gakpo powered PSV to a KNVB Cup, scoring the match-winner against Ajax in the final.

A striker, a winger, and a midfielder in one

Gakpo has continued his meteoric rise, scoring thirteen goals and assisting 17 times in just 24 games across all competitions. He is the goalscoring engine who has propelled PSV to third place in the Eredivisie and into the Europa League knockout rounds against Sevilla.

Some of Gakpo’s best performances came in when he could wreak havoc on the wing. He scored twice and assisted once in a UECL match with Copenhagen and netted a brace against Feyenoord. Despite playing as a striker in those games, he was able to shift towards the wing and attack in the flank. Those matches showed his ability to finish off chances as a true number nine.

Multiple heatmaps show Gakpo usually stays right outside the box on the left flank, as a winger will usually do.

From time to time, he will make daring dives towards the corner flag trying to pull off a cross. Sometimes he drops back near the halfway line to help his team defend in dire situations.

His ability to transition from sideline to sideline while also posing a massive threat to the goal reminds most of Ajax’s Dusan Tadic. It’s no wonder then, that Gakpo has played multiple times as an attacking midfielder.

Unlike other wingers, he also plays all over the attacking third. He plays at both flanks looking for daring outside-the-box shots, like his effort against Ecuador in the 5th minute.

What makes him so lethal is his ability to create space and force his opponents to respect him. He creates space by lurking on the edge of the box, either pulling defenders towards him or setting him up for daring runs into the heart of the box.

It was how he scored his goal against Senegal, where he snuck past an unsuspecting Senegal defense and pushed his header past Edouard Mendy.

His playstyle also helped him score his third World Cup strike against Qatar, where he got the ball 20ish yards away from the box, but dribbled his way to the penalty shot and beat the Qatar keeper.

His positioning gives him lots of good chances to score, and score he has.

His role in the Netherlands

One of Gakpo’s best skills isn’t his ice-cold finishing, reliable playmaking, nor his intelligent positioning. For Louis Van Gaal, it’s his consistency and ability to adapt anywhere.

“Things can change but Cody has everything it takes to become a star. He has a wonderful personality to become a star player because he is open-minded to anything and everything,” Van Gaal told the media in a post-match conference against the US.

“Cody is a very young player – he is 23 but looks younger. He has only been playing with PSV for two, three years and always played from the left. He did not want to play in the centre or at 10, but he did have to for me. Now he thinks I am a great head coach!”

Van Gaal’s ability to plug Gakpo anywhere in his preferred 3-4-1-2: attacking midfielder, left striker, or right striker: could help him forge a deep run into the finals of the competition.

His partnership with Memphis, a player not only renowned for his goalscoring, but also his playmaking, means that Van Gaal has a lot of fluidity to work with in the attacking third. It showed in the Netherlands’ four matches.

In his group stage matches, Gakpo looked for goal more as a true number nine. He looked to create space with incisive runs, but only took a shot a handful of times.

Yet against America, Gakpo played more as a facilitator. It was evident in the Netherlands’ first goal, where Gakpo took the ball and found a marauding Denzel Dumfries on the wing, who crossed it to Memphis for an easy goal.

It will be a mystery to know how Van Gaal will use Gakpo against Argentina in the quarter-finals. Argentina’s back line does stretch out a bit, so having Gakpo string together passes from sideline to sideline could help them a lot.

But the variables of the game are too complicated to unravel, and everything tactical is unknown until the lineups are announced. Friday will definitely be a big factor in Gakpo’s career, but he will be sure to show out in front of thousands of frenzied fans.

Photo credit: IMAGO / Pro Shots

Guide to World Cup 2022

Here are some resources to help you get the most out of the biggest event in soccer!
TV Schedule: All the info on where and when to watch every game
The Groups: We breakdown each group and all the teams
The Kits: Check out what every team will be wearing on the field this fall
Predictor: Play out every scenario with our World Cup Predictor
World Cup Bracket: Map out the entire tournament, from the groups to the final