The sweetest of all the goals in the 7-0 shellacking of Manchester United was probably Roberto Firmino’s. Not for its aesthetic beauty, but because of the scorer. No footballer has made more appearances for Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp than the Brazilian, whose energetic, selfless, creative approach to the game symbolises the very best parts of the Klopp era.
It was announced late last week that the former Hoffenheim forward would be departing on a free transfer, so for the crowd favourite to come off the bench and put the icing on the cake with a tidy finish sent Anfield even more berserk and saw United further descend into a high-velocity, emotional headloss – one that’ll hopefully have further ramifications on their season.
But while Firmino’s goal was the funniest, the one that led to the most singing and bravado, Cody Gakpo’s opener was the most important and his second, the most special.
There’s a legitimate argument to be made that United were the better side in the first-half before the Dutchman received Andy Robertson’s beautiful pass, cut inside the box with one touch and curled into the bottom corner.
The goal though changed everything and by the time he’d broken down the field early in the second-half, linking up with Mo Salah to then chip over David de Gea from an absurd angle, the game was over as a contest and the fun could begin.
Gakpo’s performance was sublime and it feels telling that he produced an outing Firmino himself would be mighty proud of in the false-9 role.
Interestingly, when Bobby arrived from Germany in 2015, Brendan Rodgers had no idea how to use him. He was initially put on the left-wing and his lack of pace was obvious and his early impression wasn’t spellbinding. Klopp though decided to stop using Christian Benteke or Daniel Sturridge as his first-choice centre-forward and instead opted with Firmino in a deep-lying, manically pressing, creative-forward position. Lionel Messi was doing something similar for Barcelona with more goals and less defending, but Firmino put his own spin on the false-9 and his impersonation of the role is now arguably its iconic representation.
Similarly, Liverpool fans saw Gakpo on the left-wing for PSV and saw multiple highlight clips of him coming off the wing and shooting into the far corner. As a result, there were questions asked in January as to why we bought another left-winger when we already have Darwin Nunez, Diogo Jota and an eventually returning Luis Diaz in the position.
But it didn’t take long to realise Klopp had other plans. Apart from his debut in a 2-2 draw with Wolves, Gakpo has pretty much been used centrally on every occasion. And importantly, the boss has persisted even when the Dutchman put in some fairly meek early performances. He didn’t score or assist against Wolves (three times), Brighton (two times) or Chelsea in his opening six Liverpool matches.
He did, however, find the net versus Everton in the Merseyside Derby and ever since, Gakpo’s confidence has grown, along with his understanding of his new position and his attacking teammates. Four goals in six games have followed, but it’s his overall contribution to a far more balanced Liverpool side which is most impressive.
Unlike Darwin Nunez, a pace-merchant who loves to run in behind, Gakpo likes the ball into feet and is technically strong enough to hold it up and pop it off to midfielders or fullbacks. Firmino could do this in his sleep and the manner in which Bobby dropped deeper and created space for Salah and Sadio Mane to come off their wings into the box was crucial to our offensive setup.
There were definitely elements of this in the win against United, with Gakpo dropping deep and Nunez playing the more advanced role coming off the left-flank. Salah, too, looked back to his absolute best. Perhaps he needs a teammate who sits between the lines and lets him run on or come inside, rather than a striker also trying to get behind the backline, as Nunez was earlier in the season when used as a centre-forward.
Where Gakpo offers a potential improvement on Firmino though is in his sheer physicality. He’s 6ft 4′ and there were times at Anfield on Sunday where he man-handled United’s midfielders and drove towards the defence with a dynamic dribbling style. It was ferocious and exciting, while Firmino’s dribbling is silky and full of flair without huge forward progression.
The finish for Gakpo’s second was also a beautiful Firmino impression, dinking the onrushing goalkeeper into the far corner after a cleverly timed run. It appears he might be able to offer a bit of the brutish, physical qualities our team has lacked this season but also the finesse with which it purrs when all are confident.
Klopp has a knack for buying a player from one position and spotting that he could be perfectly adapted into something to suit his tactic. Gini Wijnaldum largely played on the wing for Newcastle. The Firmino example has been heavily discussed, but Trent Alexander-Arnold was a midfielder at youth level before his right-back evolution.
The manner in which Gakpo linked with Nunez and Salah and also maximised their space is very exciting and shows that Klopp may have devised an attacking plan to save our season. We’ll have a returning Diaz as an option on the left soon, a more skilful, creative player than Nunez, who will provide a different option to Darwin’s chaos and energy. Both will be needed and the option of Jota or Firmino off the bench will also ease the pressure from Gakpo in the middle.
The transfer now makes sense. And at 23-years-old, the same age we signed Firmino, there is a clear path and a position in the second version of Klopp’s Liverpool for the Dutchman. For maybe the first time all season, I feel very excited about what’s to come.