A NUMBER of players have benefited hugely from the arrival of Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool almost six months ago, writes Joel Rabinowitz.
Dejan Lovren has seemingly resurrected his career at the club, and has improved markedly from the nerve-wracked, error-prone performances that punctuated the end of Brendan Rodgers’ reign.
Adam Lallana, who almost collapsed into the arms of his new manager on his first match in charge at Tottenham, has added more guile to his graft; finally starting to showcase his true ability on a regular basis.
And Roberto Firmino, a player many feared would be a £29million flop only a few short months ago, has become an attacking figurehead — arguably one of the most influential players in the Premier League since the turn of the year.
However, one individual has flourished above all others under the management of Klopp. Step forward, Emre Can.
It seems rather a basic principle in football to play your best players in their most favoured position yet that wasn’t always the case for Liverpool’s players, particularly towards the end of Rodgers’ time at the club.
Klopp has gone back to basics and perhaps it should not come as a surprise that Emre Can has thrived in his natural midfield role.
The rate of his development over the course of this season has been remarkable and his emergence as a key figure of Klopp’s side has been one of the genuine shining lights in this most erratic of campaigns.
I suspect many knew very little of Emre Can when he signed from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer of 2014 for a fee just shy of £10m.
The fact that his former club, Bayern Munich, had inserted a buy-back fee was a clear sign of his potential while the mandatory YouTube search was enough to convince he would be worth the punt.
Liverpool snapped him up before the buy-back clause could be activated. As it turned out, we had unearthed a real gem; a diamond in the rough.
Can’s first season in English football was a steep learning curve, during which he demonstrated his precocious ability along with the kind of rash, inexperienced mistakes you could expect from any young player in a new league.
After a standout performance against Chelsea at Anfield in which he plundered his first goal for the club in a 2-1 defeat, we would see very little thereafter of Can playing in midfield.
The trusted names of Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva limited Can’s opportunities in his favoured role.
A half-time Boxing Day substitution away at Burnley proved to be a pivotal moment in Can’s debut season.
Replacing Kolo Toure as the right-sided centre-back in a 3-4-3 system, Can began to make a name for himself as he grew into this niche role throughout the 2014-15 season.
It was an unorthodox and innovative idea by Rodgers that allowed Can the freedom to use his ability to drive out of defence with the ball.
Despite impressing in this role, Can’s season ended on a disappointing note following a failed experiment as a makeshift right-back during which he was horribly exposed on multiple occasions.
Nevertheless, we had seen enough to know we had a real player on our hands.
The task with Can this season was going to be about harnessing his talent and developing him into a more mature and consistent performer, one who could be relied upon as a regular starter.
Following the departure of Steven Gerrard, and the lack of a top-class replacement, allied to the continued injury struggles of Jordan Henderson, Liverpool were in need of someone to step up and fill that gaping hole in the midfield.
Can has responded to that task by stepping up in emphatic style. Klopp has put his full trust in Can as the key figure in Liverpool’s midfield and the improvement in his game since last season has been striking.
With statistics come scepticism but in the case of Can, the numbers offer a stark reflection of his development.
This season he has created 1.21 chances per game — a hefty increase on last season’s 0.48.
He also makes more interceptions this season, averaging 2.14 per game versus 1.66 last season, demonstrating his improved reading of the game and positional understanding.
Can has also become more of an attacking threat, taking on 1.05 shots per game versus just 0.65 last season, with an improved shooting accuracy of 55 per cent compared to 36 per cent last season.
His tackles-per-game ratio has dropped from 2.14 to 1.66, although this is to be expected having played in defence for the majority of last season.
In several key departments, Can has improved his all-around game quite significantly.
We could still expect more of him, however, in terms of attacking contribution. He currently sits on two goals and two assists this season in all competitions.
This is an area of his game which should improve with time. He has the ability, undoubtedly, to record better numbers.
Just re-watch his outside-of-the-boot chipped through ball for Sturridge in the 6-1 rout at Southampton. His audacious backheel to Coutinho in the build up to Firmino’s goal in the 4-1 victory over Man City. Or his 20-yard driven strike in the 6-0 thrashing of Aston Villa more recently.
He has all the tools.
Can’s goal against Aston Villa rather neatly showcases what he offers as a player.
He started the move with an aggressive pressing action to win possession just over the halfway line, before surging forward to receive the ball from Firmino and apply the finish from range.
Can has become an immensely powerful and authoritative presence in midfield, able to impose himself physically against much older and more experienced opponents. It is easy to forget he is still only 22.
His leadership qualities are another aspect of his game that have come to the fore in recent months. Can has already been spoken of as a potential candidate for the captaincy in the future as one of the side’s most vocal figures on the pitch.
In the recent win at Selhurst Park, it was Can who simply refused to let the game slip away in difficult circumstances. He was the one who got the team fired up, barking orders and organising the back line, helping to drag his side back into the match.
Combining a superb work-rate off the ball with outstanding technical ability, Can has the potential to develop into one of the league’s finest box-to-box midfielders.
If reports are to be believed, Klopp will look to sign an elite-level controlling midfielder to partner Can next season, casting uncertainty over Jordan Henderson’s future.
It speaks volumes of his own development that Can looks to have eclipsed the captain in the pecking order.
It seems that Klopp will look to build his midfield with Can in a box-to-box role in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
He is not yet the finished product, as there are still various aspects of Can’s game with plenty of room for improvement. He still gives the ball away cheaply at times and that, alongside his attacking contribution, is something he must work on.
It is clear, however, that this diamond in the rough is becoming an increasingly polished article.
His skill set is vast and will continue to become more refined as he develops further as a player. He will surely be a key figure for the club for many years to come.