Manchester United: How PSV winger Cody Gakpo went from Ruud van Nistelrooy’s understudy to potential Premier League savior

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History has shown that Manchester United signing a promising Dutch forward can go one of two ways.

There could be the results of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie – two strikers who enjoyed immediate success from the moment they walked through the door at Old Trafford and are now regarded as cult heroes at United.

But then there are Memphis Depay and Jordi Cruyff, attacking players who arrived in the red half of Manchester as marquee signings but failed to replicate their earlier successes and ended up on the scrap heap.

Fortunately, PSV Eindhoven winger Cody Gakpo, who Manchester United are ready to move for in a £35m transfer, has experience of working alongside one of the strikers who made the most positive impact in Old Trafford.

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Dutch football expert Marcel Van der Kraan brings the perspective from the Netherlands on why Cody Gakpo is so highly rated in Europe and why Erik ten Hag is so desperate to bring him to Manchester United.

The 23-year-old has essentially grown up alongside Van Nistelrooy in Eindhoven, with the former United icon scoring 150 goals for the club in five years as Gakpo’s forwards coach in PSV’s academy.

Van Nistelrooy has tried to turn Gakpo into a ruthless striker in his own mold. Achieving a perfect and attractive finish is not part of their mission. Strong and low shot past the goalkeeper was the main message of the mentor to the prodigy. A good goal is one that goes in, not one that looks pretty.

Manchester United are interested in PSV's Cody Gakpo
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Manchester United are interested in PSV’s Cody Gakpo

Van Nistelrooy was promoted to head coach of PSV in the summer and, although this season is in its early days, the pair’s player-coach partnership is off to a good start.

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Gakpo scored twice in the opening weekend of the Eredivisie season, while also registering a goal and two assists in a 5-3 win over Ajax in the Dutch version of the Community Shield.

PSV's Cody Gakpo alerts Liverpool
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Gakpo has started this season strongly for PSV

The only factor that separates Gakpo and Van Nistelrooy is their position. The latter was a traditional number 9 who lived and breathed the penalty area, while Manchester United’s most common target so far is on the left wing in order to cut inside .

Gakpo’s positioning raises big questions about where he fits in at Old Trafford. United have plenty of wide options in Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, while Anthony Elanga, Facundo Pellistri and Amad Diallo have all just turned 20.

The comparisons to Rashford as a left back who can play up front are very noticeable. Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag has backed the England international over the summer, with Rashford shining in pre-season. But the super sunday Defeat to Brighton on the opening weekend means the 24-year-old’s confidence remains low.

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Will Gakpo replace Rashford at Man United?

So, with Gakpo a year younger than Rashford, what does the PSV forward bring that is different to what United currently have?

Last season was Gakpo’s best in a PSV shirt with 21 goals and 15 assists in all competitions. The 23-year-old features predominantly on the left, with cameos on the right side and front.

Van Nistelrooy’s use of the finish may be the main part of Gapko’s game (the forward surpassed his xG from last season), but his overall creative output is what stands out. No player 23 or younger has recorded more assists per 90 than Gakpo. Only Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele and Muller’s Bayern Thomas Muller managed more than the PSV man in the same category among all players in Europe’s top five leagues.

Gakpo also ranked third in the Eredivisie’s biggest chances created category and fourth in shots completed. “Gakpo is a tall player with speed,” explains Dutch football expert Marcel van der Kraan Sky Sports News. “He was voted Dutch Player of the Year by his fellow professional players and everyone in Eindhoven will be sad to lose him. He combines speed with a good left foot and skill.

“I always think of Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie, he’s not at that level yet. But they came into the Premier League as left-backs and became strikers under Arsene Wenger and he did very well. Little by little he’s becoming a striker. because he’s had a good coach in Van Nistelrooy.”

While the Dutch Eredivisie is a tier below the Premier League – so it’s hard to see whether last season’s performances in Holland can translate to English football – it’s worth noting that Gakpo’s performance in Europe was also well above average.

The forward scored seven goals in 14 continental games as PSV were knocked out of the Champions League and Europa League group stage, before reaching the Conference quarter-finals.

However, there are some doubts, especially given that Gakpo is not United’s main target after failed performances for Ajax winger Antony and Bologna striker Marco Arnautovic. “He is the type of player that Erik Ten Hag likes because he likes to play on the wings,” adds Van Der Kraan. “But for every Dutch player who goes to play in England, he needs time to adapt.

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“With that in mind, I’m a little worried because Gakpo is outstanding in all the big games in Holland and in Europe. But playing in and out of the United team, I’m a little worried. I think he will eventually be the top man in a big club”.

If Gakpo moves to Old Trafford, along with Ajax’s Lisandro Martinez and Feyenoord’s Tyrell Malacia, Ten Hag will have brought players from each of Holland’s big three to Man United this summer.

Together, some of the main figures of Dutch football last season will have to adapt to Premier League football. However, the focus will be on whether Ten Hag and Gakpo can combine in the same way the latter has done with former Manchester United striker Van Nistelrooy over the years.


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