LIVERPOOL fans everywhere came down with a bad case of the January blues on Saturday after another meek performance on the road in the Premier League at West Ham.
Within 37 hours of 2016, Michail Antonio had raced 87 yards upfield to slam the ball into Simon Mignolet’s net with his bonce, and the New Year brought about the same feelings that had been suffered at Newcastle and Watford in December.
If you’ve been paying attention then you’ll have seen there is rather a lot of doom and gloom among Reds fans at the moment, largely down to the quality, or lack thereof, of Jürgen Klopp’s squad.
There are a lot of players at Anfield who are surely now playing for their futures between now and the end of the season. However, one player who is certain to be a part of Liverpool’s future under Klopp, and probably the only one to emerge from recent games with more ticks than crosses by his name, is Emre Can.
The German international is now getting a run of games in his favoured position of central midfield, and has been earning some plaudits for, if nothing else, showing more fight than many of his teammates.
On Saturday, it was Can who seemed to be the one fighting for the ball, winning it back, carrying it forward and slamming a lovely side-footed effort off the crossbar just before half time. It was far from a 10 out of 10 performance, but it was something for fans to go away with when searching for the positives from an afternoon to forget.
There was a lot of excitement around the capture of the big lad when Liverpool signed him from under the noses of Bayern Munich, who had intended to bring him back to the Allianz Arena from Bayer Leverkusen a season later, but the Reds nipped in there and triggered his release clause before they knew what was going on. It was uncharacteristically clever stuff from Liverpool’s transfer people.
Can enjoyed a decent first season, even though he was forced to play a lot of it in defence as part of a back-three under Brendan Rodgers. He adapted well, but admitted that he didn’t see his long term future in the backline. Can fully believes he is a midfielder, as he told The Anfield Wrap back in June last year.
There was an assumption that once Jürgen Klopp arrived in the Anfield dugout that it would be the making of Can, and it has ensured that he is played regularly and in his favoured role, but he has somewhat divided opinion on whether he’s doing enough to be a regular part of the starting XI.
Former Red Jimmy Case accused Can of “lacking creativity” and generally questioning what he brings to the side in an interview for BBC Radio Merseyside following the 3-0 defeat at Watford.
“He seems to have no vision whatsoever,” Case said. “[The third goal] was Can’s fault yet again — he lost possession in the build up to the goal and he nearly cost Liverpool earlier. He went racing over the far side like a bull in a china shop.
“I don’t understand what he does in the middle — he doesn’t dominate, he doesn’t pass well and he has no vision.”
One thing I would disagree with Case on in particular is Can’s vision. It’s not always on show as he’s often playing too deep to utilise it, but there have been some examples of outstanding vision and execution since he arrived at the club when he has been played in a midfield role.
His vision saw that ball in for Raheem Sterling to equalise at Bolton last year, saw the backheel to play Philippe Coutinho in for Liverpool’s third at Manchester City earlier this season, and saw that delightful ball over the top for Daniel Sturridge at Southampton the other week. These moments may not be occurring on a weekly basis, but they are there, and remember… Can is still just 21 years old.
To put that in perspective, he’s a year younger than Joao Carlos Teixeira, almost to the day.
Can has a lot of career in front of him, but the question remains, how is Klopp going to get the very best out of the clear talent that he has?
The Liverpool manager said just last month about Can: “He’s 21, but he doesn’t look like it. Often in his game he doesn’t look 21, sometimes he looks like 18! That’s the truth. He knows it. We are often in talks about it. His problem is that we speak the same language so I speak more with him.
“Emre is a really good player. He’s a big talent but like every young player he has to learn.”
Klopp also hinted that Can might have a future as a defender, at least in emergency situations. “With his size and speed and strength in one v one situations, of course Emre can play centre-half if needed. For a young player it’s more important to play than to play in the right position.
“In the German national team sometimes he plays full-back. It’s not his best position but he can play there.”
It is always seen as a compliment when a manager says you can play in multiple positions, at least from the outside, but for the player, it must also be very frustrating that he could become a victim of his own success and be moved back at any moment, especially with injuries at the club piling up.
Can has made it known in the past that he wants to get himself further up the field and to influence games in an attacking sense as much as a defensive one.
“I want to do more in attack and I know I can improve in that area of my game,” Can said earlier this season. “I want to do much more going forward in terms of scoring goals and providing assists.
“I’m trying to bring that into my game and I’m working on it in training.
“I always try to do my best and put in the running and help out in defence. I’m determined to work hard in defence and in attack.”
The future for Can appears to be bright, even if he does have to sometimes put a shift in at the back. However, there has been something I’ve been noticing in recent games that has me wondering if he could indeed emerge as an option to move in the other direction on the pitch.
There’s something about the way he plays, the way he carries himself on the pitch, his developing confidence and swagger on the ball, some of his attempts at goal and outstanding assists such as the ones mentioned earlier that remind me of a young (and please don’t overreact here) Yaya Toure.
Now before anyone ignores the overreaction warning — no, I’m not saying he’s as good as Yaya, or that he could even reach the heights that the giant Ivorian has. And I highly doubt he’ll ever have his name sung at a darts match. But in the way that Toure can massively influence a game just by getting further forward, I see enough potential in Can to suggest that he has the tools to do the same.
It came to mind particularly on Saturday. That effort that hit the bar. It was such a Yaya effort. Little back-lift, little fuss, just a calm and assured side-foot that had plenty of power and very nearly pinpoint accuracy. Then there’s his build of course, which if he learns to use it correctly, should make it very difficult for opposition defenders to get the ball off him, especially when you’re not sure if he’s about to back-heel it.
He is a good defensive player, he showed that last season albeit with the play in front of him. He showed in West Ham’s first goal at the weekend that he can struggle to defend when having to retreat. He has some pace once he gets going, but poor acceleration, so once someone has run past him he’s not likely to catch them unless they slow right down themselves, or the chase lasts longer than 30 yards.
It’s those little things that make me doubt that he is best suited to be a replacement for Lucas at defensive midfield, which is what seems to be assumed is his destiny.
However, seeing what Can has in his arsenal I honestly believe that his attacking instincts are showing more promise than his defensive ones at this stage, and that playing him in a deep role would not only limit his chances to get forward and provide that incisive ball or shot from range.
Something that Case said about Can racing over to the side of the pitch “like a bull in a china shop” did ring true. He did the same thing at Sunderland, leading to a Jermain Defoe chance, and then again on Saturday, leaving Lucas in a four-on-one situation at one point. I’m sure it’s something that can be coached, especially to one so young, but his positional awareness and discipline doesn’t seem to be reminiscent of someone set to play in a defensive midfield role.
It’s exactly why Rafa Benitez never wanted to play Steven Gerrard in a proper central role. He said that Gerrard simply didn’t have the positional discipline to play that role, as well as him being eye-poppingly amazing in the attacking third.
I don’t want to label him as the next Yaya Toure, and certainly not the next Steven Gerrard. He is the current and future Emre Can, and whatever position(s) he ends up playing, he can be a big part of Liverpool’s bright future under Klopp.
Just in case though, his birthday’s next Tuesday, so can someone at the club just make sure there’s a cake handy?
Pics: Propaganda-Photo–David Rawcliffe