Why Manchester United want Cody Gakpo – and it could spell trouble for Marcus Rashford

·5-min read
Why Manchester United want Cody Gakpo – and it could spell trouble for Marcus Rashford - GETTY IMAGES
Why Manchester United want Cody Gakpo – and it could spell trouble for Marcus Rashford - GETTY IMAGES

Another day, another transfer target for Manchester United. This time their attentions have switched to PSV Eindhoven forward Cody Gakpo, after they withdrew from a deal for Marko Arnautovic.

United are on the hunt for greater attacking threat with Cristiano Ronaldo's future and role in the team uncertain. The opening weekend defeat to Brighton saw attacking midfielders Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen rotating into the centre-forward position, but that is not a long-term solution for Erik ten Hag.

Strengthening central midfield remains a key priority, with a deal for Juventus' Adrien Rabiot progressing and interest in Lazio's Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. United's forward line needs additional potency, though, and this is why Gakpo has become a person of interest.

What type of player is Gakpo?

The 23-year-old is a flexible forward who has played most of his football from the wing, generally off the left. He is unusually tall for a wide player at around 6ft 2in, leading some to wonder if he could move through the middle as he gains more experience. Given that United are struggling for options in the No 9 role, Ten Hag may want to convert Gakpo but that would be a major gamble.

Gakpo produced 12 goals and 13 assists in the Dutch league last season, but this was the first campaign in which he reached double figures. He is yet to play 2,000 minutes in a league season and sceptics might wonder why a talent is still in Holland at 23, which is verging on a wide-forward's prime years.

Gakpo was extremely productive last season, boasting the best minutes per goal involvement ratio in the Eredivisie with a goal or an assist every 76 minutes. It should be noted that Gakpo played significantly fewer minutes than Ajax attackers Sebastien Haller and Dusan Tadic, but he certainly made the most of his time on the pitch.

Gakpo can accelerate away from defenders and has the frame to hold them off once they have been beaten. Only Tadic and Luis Sinisterra - signed by Leeds United this summer - created more chances following a ball carry than Gakpo's 20 last season. He ranked fourth for dribbles completed and fifth for shots following a ball carry.

His ability to travel with the ball is an attribute that will have caught United's eye, although as a natural right-footer many of his dribbles take him inside from the left. This comfort in central areas need not be a bad thing, and has been the reason some have considered him a potential false nine. There was cutting edge at the end of his runs too. Gakpo averaged almost four shots per game in the league and just one of his goals came from the penalty spot.

The Dutch connection

Ten Hag, who shares an agency with Gakpo, is not the first coach, and will not be the last, to go shopping in a familiar market. There are some worrying precedents for buying straight from Holland with the likes of Steven Bergwijn, Memphis Depay, Davy Klaasen and Vincent Janssen falling short of expectations in the Premier League. A sad tale of financial stratification it may be, but the gulf between the leagues only grows with every season.

That is no reason to write Gakpo off, though, and with Ten Hag in place at Old Trafford there is justified hope that he could find a favourable tactical framework in which to thrive - something previous United signings have lacked.

United's new manager worked with several forwards at Ajax, from target men such as Haller to false nines like Tadic. It was a tactic used to great effect when they dismantled Real Madrid in the Champions League.

Their pursuit of Antony this summer suggests Ten Hag wants multi-functional players who can operate in different zones across the attack. This is in Gakpo's favour: he can play left or right but is also not lost receiving the ball with back to goal against centre-backs.

Wingers who can isolate opponents one-against-one have been a feature of the Dutch school since the early 1970s, and it is no surprise to see Ten Hag targeting this profile.

Why Marcus Rashford should be worried

With Ronaldo absent for the opening weekend of the season, it was telling that Marcus Rashford was not even considered a viable option for central striker.

The England forward has not played there for some time, admittedly, and was desperately short of confidence and sharpness last season, but he is still a player who has exceeded 20 goals in all competitions twice in his United career. Yet there were few calls to see him given a chance.

This suggests Ten Hag sees Rashford as a left winger, and a look at Gakpo's touch map for PSV shows he favours similar zones of the pitch. A rangy, quick, right-footed forward who can beat players from the left and curl shots towards goal? It certainly sounds familiar... and that should concern Rashford.

A problem for United in recent seasons has been a plethora of players - Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Rashford - who want to drift left, leaving a shortage of players who can hold up the right side of the attack. Jadon Sancho looks certain to fill that role for now, and is currently one of the first names on the team sheet, but there is a strong case that he is also most effective from the left.

While he may be a right-footer, Gakpo does not look like United's next right-winger. That means serious competition for Rashford from a player with a comparable skill set.