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The making of Cody Gakpo - Meet the tactical coach behind the Netherlands World Cup star's remarkable rise

12:00 EAT 09/12/2022
Cody Gakpo Netherlands 2022 World Cup HIC 16:9
The forward has been working with a personal tactics coach since January in his bid to become one of the world's top players, and it's paying off.

At some point on Thursday afternoon, Cody Gakpo will have found himself a quiet spot at the Netherlands team hotel, put on his headphones and fired up his laptop. 

Ready to talk, ready to listen, ready to watch, ready to learn.

Ready, he hopes, for Argentina, and for the biggest game of his young career.

With three goals in four matches, Gakpo has already been one of the stars of this World Cup, but on Friday night he has the chance to enhance his reputation further still. If he can upstage Lionel Messi and fire the Dutch into the semi-finals, the PSV Eindhoven man’s journey from ‘promising talent’ to ‘established star’ will be complete.

An awful lot of work has gone into that journey, one which looks like it will lead Gakpo to one of Europe’s top clubs – perhaps Manchester United – in the near future, but if you asked the player to pinpoint the key factors in his development, in particular over the past 12 months, the chances are he would mention the name Loran Vrielink.

Vrielink is a Dutchman, a former gym teacher and professional basketball player. He is also the founder of Tactalyse, a company which offers bespoke, individual tactical coaching for professional footballers, which has more than 175 clients across 14 countries, and which has been working with Gakpo since January.

“I’m happy now that the whole world sees Cody’s development, and it’s amazing to witness it,” Vrielink, speaking from his home in Barcelona, tells GOAL. “We know the work that has gone in, so there is definitely a feeling of pride.”

The premise is pretty straightforward. Once a week, sometimes more depending on the fixture schedule, Gakpo and Vrielink will speak over Microsoft Teams.

They will spend an hour, perhaps 90 minutes, going through a series of video clips prepared by Tactalyse’s team of analysts, showing specific game situations and the player’s reactions to them, good and bad.

“We get around 400 clips from each game, and that’s what we use to prepare each session,” Vrielink says. “I always have two or three screens, so that the player can see it on his own iPad or Macbook.

"He’ll be at home, on the team bus, in the hotel, wherever, and we just go through the clips. They watch and we interact.

"I coach them, but the important thing is not that I tell them what they have to do in each game situation, it’s that they understand it themselves.”

Gakpo, it should be said, was already performing well when he decided to enlist Tactalyse’s services, but Vrielink says his desire to be an “elite top player”, coupled with his smartness and attitude to learning, meant it wasn’t long before he was making subtle but substantial improvements to his game.

Most of those improvements centred around his awareness and positional play, as opposed to anything technical. Ninety-eight percent of game situations, Vrielink says, are off the ball, and so it was there that he and Gakpo focused their attention.

“Cody’s strength is in finishing, definitely,” Vrielink says. “You see that when he has space, he can always get the ball where he wants it for the finish. His actions are really precise, so I was like ‘OK, I don’t want to touch that!’ 

“But what I wanted to do was to get him more in the situations where he can use his strengths, multiple times. 

“For example, he is amazing at crossing. We call it his signature cross. It’s insane how he does it! I don’t need to teach him how to do that, but if he does a head check before he does that cross, there is a bigger chance that the cross will arrive to his teammate.”

Vrielink uses the phrase “head check” a lot. He believes that the ability to check your surroundings, and then to know and understand what to do with those surroundings, is one of things which separates top players from average ones.

"There is an obsession with data in football at the moment, but data doesn't make a player better, it just gives you insights," he says. "What really makes the difference is behaviour change. If you change the behaviours of a player, you can earn millions!"

With Gakpo, he used clips of Arjen Robben, one of his idols, to demonstrate the importance of awareness, of creating and exploiting space in which to utilise your on-ball skills.

Importantly, Vrielink says, the player is both smart enough and humble enough to understand, and then talented enough to put his learnings with Tactalyse into practice on the field.

“Cody’s amazing to work with,” he says. “It always comes down to two things; a player’s motivation and his cognitive ability. Cody is smart, and has a good understanding of what he needs to improve, to become a more consistent performer and to get to the next level in his career.”

That word, consistent, is the key according to Vrielink. 

“That is the difference between big players and small players,” he smiles. “To be at the elite top level, you have to have that consistency in your game actions.

“When we started working with Cody at the beginning of the year, he was performing decently, scoring goals and making assists, but I think what we see now, especially in the last three or four months, is that he became more stable as a player. He is able to perform every week.”

Gakpo is not the only Dutch international to have worked with Tactalyse, which will celebrate its seventh birthday in February. Past clients include the likes of Stefan de Vrij, Leroy Fer, Joel Veltman, Jetro Willems and Maarten de Roon, and now the company has a team of 23 coaches and six analysts. They work with players, agencies and, in some instances, clubs themselves.

Vrielink smiles when asked whether his work has brought him into conflict with coaches, who may view it as undermining or adversely affecting his own tactical work.

“Yes, I’ve had that,” he says. “But one thing we always say is that we are completely open, so if a coach or an agent or a technical director wants to see a session with a player, they can.

“Some people believe we are trying to do the work of a head coach, but that isn’t true. We support the work of the head coach with individual video analysis and coaching, so that the player can perform better.

“The first thing I ask a player is ‘what does the coach expect of you?’ That’s basic. We don’t touch the team tactics, we just look to improve the fundamentals. 

“So if a player needs to press in a certain way, for example, we help him to do it better on an individual level; when to do a head check, how to better understand the surroundings, when to slow down before you press, what to do after the press. Did you do a head check again? The quicker an attacker does a head check after a duel, the more likely he is to be ready to attack again

“All of these details are crucial on an individual level, but the coaches don’t have the time to do this with every individual player in the squad. They are focused on the team.

“At the end of the day, everyone has the same goal. The club, the coach, the player, they all want to perform and to have success, so it makes sense to do it together, so everyone can benefit from it.”

Gakpo, PSV and now the Netherlands have certainly benefited from it. His form at club level this season has been sensational, and he has been able to continue that in Qatar, something that fills Vrielink and his colleagues with pride.

“Of course, for Tactalyse, getting the recognition for seven years’ work, 23 coaches, six analysts working their asses off to prepare sessions, is big,” he says. “To get that fulfilment from seeing one of our players at a World Cup, is amazing. 

“But what I like about this job is that the responsibility ultimately rests with the player. He is the one who has to perform.

“We have such an intense, great relationship with these players, speaking with them three or four times a week and really connecting with them. With Cody, if he is successful and scoring all these goals, we are of course proud because we know the work that has gone in. 

“Hopefully we will be speaking with him next week about the semi-final!”