If anything could dampen the jubilation around the United States men's national team win against Iran on Tuesday it might have been the hulking figure looming on the horizon. The Netherlands are three time finalists at the World Cup and their squad for the 2022 iteration includes one of Europe's most devastating forwards.
Cody Gakpo is among the leaders in theand has already written himself into Dutch history, joining Johan Neeskens, Dennis Bergkamp and Wesley Sneijder as the only players from the Netherlands to score in their first three World Cup games. Gakpo is merely following the trend he has been setting at club level. In 14 domestic league matches this season, the PSV Eindhoven wide man has scored nine goals to go with 12 assists. Across all competitions, he has 30 goal involvements in 24 appearances. The one-man wrecking crew on English football that is Manchester City's Erling Haaland has 26.
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The numbers are no less stark at the biggest tournament in the world. Right now, he is shooting something not far off a perfect game. Four shots on goal from the 23-year-old Gakpo have brought three goals. Surely this is striking at its apogee, right? He shoots, he scores. Almost every single time.
It might be. Gakpo might have timed his hot -and moment to perfection, that joyous moment when the goal is 10 times bigger to your eye than anyone else's on the pitch. His tear throughout this season has seen him vastly outperform his non-penalty expected goals (npxG) and his expected assists (xA). Per fbref, he is averaging 0.56 goals per 90 minutes and 0.96 assists. His expected metrics, which assess the likelihood of any shot or pass resulting in a goal or assist, are at 0.38 and 0.55. Some of the very best finishers in the world might expect to somewhat exceed their xG (in the last five league seasons Lionel Messi has done so by around 18 percent), but a scoring rate almost 50 percent greater than your xG almost certainly cannot hold.
There are no guarantees the regression to the mean comes against the USMNT, no matter how many prayers Gregg Berhalter offers up to the soccer gods. But everything we know from reams of data tells us that Gakpo cannot be expected to keep this up. The sample size might be smaller, but at the World Cup, he is painting a similar picture: Three goals for 0.34 xG. This hot streak is the sort that should be giving Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal pause for thought, as well as any clubs mulling an Antony scale $100 million bid. Don't buy this player because you're expecting his current production to continue in the long term. It almost certainly won't. The big question is whether the player he regresses toward is worth the money (factor in development over the next few years and he might be).
That is not Berhalter's concern, however. He must come up with a way of quieting Gakpo, who will often drop deep from the center forward role in which he is deployed. Be it Tyler Adams or a center back following him, it will be vital to not allow him to turn and drive forward. His build-up play requires work, as he himself has acknowledged, stating that he must "help the team more in ball possession, to keep it so that the team can move forward."
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Go through the lengthy reel that is Gakpo's goals this season and the same finish keeps popping up, the forward carrying the ball off his starting position on the left flank and bending a shot in at the far post. He has already done so against Senegal in this tournament but Van Gaal has largely placed him in more central roles. In this World Cup, he is, if anything, picking the ball up on the right side of attack, taking advantage of the space between opposition left backs and their central defenders. As you can see in the heat map here from his group stage matchups.
One wonders whether the presence of Sergino Dest, no one's idea of a lockdown defender, might prompt a slight tweak of formations or positioning so that the Netherlands can get Gakpo one on one with the USMNT's right back. If so, Berhalter might want to consider replicating the off-ball 4-4-2 that so quelled England on Matchday 2 with Weston McKennie acting as ballast in front of Dest. This would certainly not be a task unknown to Gakpo. As you can see from his Europa League heat map, when he plays for his club, the lion's share of his touches occur in those spaces.
The task in quelling Gakpo is aided by the more cautious approach the Netherlands take to build up as opposed to PSV, where the young forward is a volume shooter, averaging nearly four shots per 90 minutes. The Dutch are barely hitting double that tally per game at this tournament -- though they tend to take good shots when they do pull the trigger -- and have been rather reliant on their burgeoning star's excellence in tight contests. The return of Memphis Depay, a forward who delivers with regularity on the international stage, at least offers more variety to the attack if he is able to perform at full efficiency.
He adds to a lineup that is full of stars but did not coalesce convincingly in what was arguably the most favorable of group stage draws. The American team might feel they were battle hardened by good opponents in England and Iran and would be entitled to feel that their impressive midfield of McKennie, Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams can at least match Frenkie De Jong and company. The Dutch backline might be full of individual quality, but they have made errors that better opponents might punish.
The USA might be underdogs, but they have a real prospect of reaching the quarter finals, matching their best ever performance at the World Cup. That chance will only grow if Gakpo's cooldown comes on Saturday.
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