This was supposed to be a season of change for Liverpool.
The Reds parted with an initial £64 million in the summer to bring Darwin Núñez to Anfield. Not only was it the first time that the Merseyside club had spent over £40m on an attacker but Darwin was also the first pure centre-forward signed by Jürgen Klopp.
His arrival was supposed to signify the end of the false-nine era at Anfield. After all, Darwin is the polar opposite of Roberto Firmino, the man who has spearheaded the Liverpool attack during the entirety of Klopp’s time at the helm.
Firmino is an entertainer who plays the game at his own pace. He is selfless, cunning and, on his day, mesmerising. Darwin, on the other hand, is raw, and robust. He plays as though it is a game of next goal winner.
There is a world in which these two players coexist in the same XI but with Firmino’s contract expiring at the end of the season and the injuries racking up for the experienced Brazilian, everything did seem to point towards Darwin being his replacement in attack. Not stylistically, of course.
Klopp has never been shy about praising the man the Uruguayan is replacing.
Following the 5-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford last season, the German said: “I’m pretty sure people will write books about how he interpreted the false-nine position. I won’t say he invented it, but the way he plays it, it looks like it!”
He has also been quoted as saying: “The way we played in the last few years was only possible because of Bobby.”
But all good things come to an end. At the top level of football, you adapt or you perish. Liverpool had adapted some elements of their system over recent seasons with Diogo Jota coming in being used centrally while Luis Díaz played the left-sided attacking role differently to Sadio Mané. This was the next evolution of the forward line at Anfield. Instead of the centre-forward dropping deep to link play, they would be the one looking to get in behind while others would adopt tweaked roles. Mohamed Salah, for example, had more of a creative brief as the Reds looked to bed Darwin in.
The Reds altered their style and tried to go a little more direct on occasion. The more they forced it, the less control they had in matches. The midfield was being bypassed during offensive and defensive transitions so there was no solid base. As a result of this, Liverpool conceded a lot of chances and goals. They dropped a lot of points.
Heading into the January transfer window, many expected Klopp to reinforce the midfield yet just one signing was made.
Linked with Manchester United, Leeds and Southampton, the 23-year-old had impressed at the World Cup with the Netherlands. He was expected to leave PSV, but few foresaw a move to Anfield despite Pep Lijnders, Liverpool’s assistant manager, gushing over him in November. He was quoted as calling his compatriot “the missing link,” though he was referring to the national team at the time.
The move caught a lot of people off guard. The Reds didn’t need yet another left-sided attacker with Díaz, Jota, Fabio Carvalho and Darwin all capable of playing that role. In his first start for his new side, he played on the left of a front three against Wolves in the FA Cup with Salah on the right and Darwin leading the line.
Darwin was then ruled out with a hamstring injury and this saw Gakpo used centrally due to the injuries to Firmino and Jota. He’s been there ever since, even though everyone other than Díaz is now available for selection. Gakpo had played there on occasion for PSV, but the majority of his minutes arrived from the left while in Holland. Not long after his signing was announced, former Manchester United forward Robin Van Persie gave his thoughts on the young attacker.
“He is a good player. (Gakpo) always finds a way to have an influence. In terms of getting an assist or scoring a goal. He is always dangerous (but) not really an out-and-out striker. He can play as a No. 10, on the (left) wing, as a false striker or on the right wing. He has a good physique. He’s strong, fast and can dribble. An all-round player.”
At the time, the entire system was built around ensuring the centre-forward for Liverpool was well-serviced.
It is no doubt one of the reasons why Darwin has been so impactful this season. He’s in the 99th percentile for attacking contribution (combining non-penalty shots with open-play chances created) in the Premier League.
The fact that Van Persie highlighted Gakpo wasn’t an out-and-out striker was accurate but it was also confusing. It clashed with Liverpool’s style. The one they had been working toward all season. So why was he being used as the focal point?
It had quite clearly dawned on Klopp and his coaching team that this new approach required a blast from the past.
Liverpool had been operating with a front four when in possession. The wide forwards would hold the width, Darwin would occupy both centre-backs and then the plan was for one of the two box-to-box midfielders to push on and fill the spaces in between the centre-forward and the wide forward. The other would sit and create a double pivot with the defensive midfielder. However, this was fairly fluid and given the players weren’t yet well-versed in this shape – they didn’t have the reps done for it yet – it caused a lot of problems and created gaps that were regularly being exploited.
The blast from the past was a false nine.
Few envisaged Gakpo would play that role but in practice it makes sense. The Dutchman is a blend of Firmino and Darwin in the sense he’s technically brilliant, progressive and a competent progressor of the ball but he’s also very direct in his thought process. The 6-foot-4 forward can receive the ball to feet with his back to goal. He’s happy to link with the midfield but he also has the ability to turn and attack space.
Liverpool have kept a front-four approach when in possession but it has been altered. The centre-forward now drops deep to make up a secondary two with the right-sided midfielder behind the two wide forwards. However, instead of holding their width, they are narrow and occupy all four defenders. You can see this shape in action in the two examples below.
First, against Everton. A tactic now for Liverpool is to go long and look to pick up the second balls with Gakpo having a significant role in this approach.
He can pick up possession and attack the space ahead of him with centre-backs reluctant to step up to press him due to the threat of Darwin and Salah in behind.
The 23-year-old has been fairly influential since he arrived on Merseyside. Since his first appearance at the club, the PSV academy graduate actually ranks joint-third for attacking sequence involvements behind Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold. And both players have more minutes to their names. This is even more impressive when you consider he’s still learning the ropes at Anfield while playing in a new role.
Gakpo referenced this in an interview following the 7-0 win over Manchester United recently.
“Obviously I played a few games in the centre and more like a false nine to be involved in the build-up, and from there go forward. It’s another role that I’m used to, but it’s good for me to improve the position and keep working.”
The shock 1-0 defeat to Bournemouth ended Liverpool’s five-match unbeaten run in the Premier League. However, during that run, the Reds kept five clean sheets, scored 13 goals and picked up 13 points. This run included tricky matches against Newcastle United and Manchester United. Liverpool won both matches. Gakpo starred as a false nine in both games.
The 14-cap Dutch international scored the second against Newcastle to all but put that game to bed after only 17 minutes. He then scored twice in the historic win over the Red Devils. Both were top-level finishes, but what really caught the eye was how he was forever finding and creating space against United. It was very reminiscent of Firmino at his peak. He showed his intelligence and awareness to drift to the unoccupied left flank knowing the midfielders wouldn’t want to go out there before bursting into central areas to pick up the ball in the space between the defensive and the midfield lines.
This new shape allows Salah and Darwin to get into dangerous areas while ensuring they have support. It also gives Liverpool a solid base as multiple players are no longer being tasked with occupying dual roles. The Reds have a double pivot protecting the backline and then have an extra two bodies backing up the press if the initial one fails.
Perhaps Klopp tried to move away from the false-nine tactic a little too abruptly. Since returning to it, Liverpool have looked a lot more functional as a unit. The Bournemouth result doesn’t change that.