First the Netherlands released Cody Gakpo, then Cody Gakpo unleashed a warning to the World Cup. But perhaps the fastest goal of the tournament so far came too soon, both for the Netherlands and for Gakpo, even if the ferocious strike was a clear example of his exciting talent. By six minutes, Gakpo had fired the Netherlands towards the last 16 but by 60, he and they had become far too quiet, far too passive.
There is, clearly, much more work to do before Gakpo can truly declare himself to the World Cup as a forward capable of dragging this Netherlands side into the category of contenders. Gakpo’s stunning hit on the turn to give the Netherlands the lead looked to be the moment that launched this Dutch campaign. Like Gakpo’s shot, they were streaking clear in a hot, bright light of orange. In the end, it fizzled out long before full-time.
If only the Netherlands could have followed Gakpo’s early example. His and their best moment came after five minutes and from there, Louis van Gaal’s side stopped playing. At first, Gakpo looked liberated by his selection up front, alongside Steven Bergwijn. By the end, he looked isolated and perhaps the biggest question facing the Netherlands ahead of their final group fixture against Qatar is that their standout player of the World Cup so far does not have a clear position in its team.
Gakpo is part winger, part striker, part number 10, while also being none of the above in this Netherlands side. His goal record of 34 in 28 appearances for club and country this season suggests he can fit into a system regardless, but the reality for the Netherlands looks much different - despite already scoring twice in Qatar. Gakpo has struggled to make his mark at number 10, now faded in his deployment as a split forward. He is unlikely to get any minutes out wide for Van Gaal’s side - given the manager’s preference of 3-4-1-2.
His was also a strange game against Senegal. Operating behind Bergwijn and the rather more immobile Vincent Janssen, Gakpo seemed to be swallowed up by the space he was supposed to exploit. After considerable hype, his first World Cup performance did not live up to expectation - until Frenkie de Jong’s sumptuous pass over the Senegal defence found Gakpo’s late run and set up his 84th minute header.
In a match in which he did not make the impact many had expected, Gakpo still made the difference. Crucially, it came after a tweak from Van Gaal that saw both Bergwijn and Janssen removed. Gakpo was perhaps fortunate to remain on, but in his new position as the right fork of the Dutch attack he found his feet. Despite theoretically having less space in leading the line, Gakpo eventually found enough to deliver the breakthrough. It was a switch that led to the opening goal against Ecuador, as Gakpo rolled to his left and slammed a shot inside the near post.
While Memphis Depay remains limited following his return from a recent hamstring injury, the Netherlands remain in need of a talisman. There are moments where Gakpo looks like he could fill those shoes, and there are some fascinating parallels to be found between them. In 2014, a 20-year-old PSV forward named Depay became the first Dutch player to score in each of his first two appearances at a World Cup, following goals against Australia and Chile. In 2022, a 23-year-old PSV forward named Gakpo is only the second Dutch player to achieve the feat.
And yet the Netherlands are in need of much more. Gakpo was removed on 75 minutes - he and Bergwijn had hardly seen the ball in the second half as Ecuador took charge, controlling the Netherlands while offering far more fight and hustle. Gakpo remains an explosive forward - that much has already been seen and will likely be on display in the final group stage match against Qatar. But in the knockout stages and beyond, a more balanced and cohesive performance will be needed, both by Gakpo and his team.