Manchester United have been linked with PSV Eindhoven left winger Cody Gakpo, leading to speculation over where he will fit in and who may lose out, with some suggesting he could be converted to a centre-forward role under Erik ten Hag.
A look through his goals for PSV tells you that he is quite capable of using his body well to get a shot off when under pressure from multiple angles. Furthermore he is adept at using the bodies around him to mask his efforts, often catching the goalkeeper off-guard with a curler around or through several defenders. He does this both around the penalty area and in it.
Despite his frame and his 6’2” height, he is not an obvious aerial threat by any stretch. He did manage to score one headed goal last season, but it is certainly not a common feature of his game. Gakpo is even the designated corner taker at Eindhoven, despite standing taller than all but two of his outfield teammates.
If Ten Hag wants a centre forward who can act as a direct outlet for United when they struggle to build up play effectively, he will likely be disappointed – Gakpo contests fewer aerial challenges than both Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial (as per squawka stats), despite having an obvious advantage over most Eredivisie defenders.
As Daniel Zeqiri writes in his Telegraph piece, Gakpo’s profile would suggest that he is far more comfortable as a left winger, operating in the same channel that many of United’s players have shown a heavy preference for in recent years. His style of play – focused on progressive carries and with a high shot volume – is almost eerily similar to Rashford, right down to his rangy size.
But while Zeqiri claims that this should worry the Englishman, it could in fact be exactly what Rashford needs to get back to his best.
The academy graduate has had a tumultuous eighteen months, with heavy media scrutiny, injury concerns and a complete and utter absence of confidence all leaving many to forget the extremely productive player that Rashford can be. This is a player who scored 38 Premier League goals under two different managers from a wide position across three campaigns, between 2018 and 2021.
United’s growing dependence on his output under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is reflected in the fact that Rashford featured in all but one Premier League game in the Norwegian’s last full season, despite suffering from ankle problems and a lower back stress fracture that required an operation after the Euros.
Many at the time had concerns over ‘running him into the ground,’ and the outcome should be no surprise to anybody at this stage.
The player, of course, has also shown signs of fairly ludicrous complacency as well. The gut-busting youngster who chased every ball may never fully return, but if there is one thing that kills complacency, it’s competition – just ask Luke Shaw, who only seems to play well whenever Man United sign a new left back.
Having genuine options in the squad is step one on the long, long journey to competing with the clubs out on the horizon and if Erik ten Hag really believes that “an era can end,” as he told us in his first press conference, he will need to keep his attackers mentally and physically fresh to take on teams with as many attacking options as Manchester City and Liverpool have.
Right before the ill-fated signing of Alexis Sanchez, Jose Mourinho had great success in rotating Martial and Rashford. Interchangeable as they were at the time, opposition right backs struggled to cope with one before being railroaded by the other – fresh and hungry as the substitute was. Having such an option under Ten Hag could be the best thing for Rashford as he looks to rediscover his form. Rashford can still be a crucial player at Old Trafford, but not if he plays ten games in October.
If we are to entertain the fanciful notion that Paris Saint-Germain will improve upon Rashford’s £200k-per-week deal to have him strictly playing backup to the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar – even before considerations of how exactly someone with the Englishman’s media profile could navigate accusations of hypocrisy by representing the Qatari regime directly – then that possible future at Old Trafford will, of course, disappear. His chances with the England national team will also likely be irrecoverable from a Parisian bench.
The best version of Rashford is one whose fitness is carefully managed in a competitive environment. For Erik ten Hag, such a version would be a huge boost to his squad alongside Cody Gakpo. Should the PSV winger merely be a replacement however, it is questionable if that really improves upon the potential in the squad.
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