THERE was a point in time, not so long ago, that Emre Can was being mooted by some as a potential future Liverpool captain. By the end of last season, his name was among those most likely to continue as a guaranteed starter and key figure for Liverpool moving forward under Jürgen Klopp.
Given Jordan Henderson’s injury struggles, Can shouldered the responsibility of being Liverpool’s main man in midfield for much of last season and many expected that Klopp would look to the transfer market to bring in an ideal partner to slot in alongside the German in the heart of midfield.
Yet here we are, just over the halfway mark in the 2016-17 season, and Can’s situation is far from what many would have expected. Admittedly, few of us would have seen Gini Wijnaldum becoming the all-action central midfielder he’s become under Klopp, but the Dutchman’s sophisticated style has been integral to Liverpool’s fluidity and team balance, at the expense of Can’s place in the side.
It would be fair to say that when all are fully fit and available, Klopp’s preferred midfield trio features Henderson at the base, supported by Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana in more advanced roles. Can has, of course, still had a role to play with injuries to Henderson and Lallana at various points providing a window of opportunity.
Such has been Henderson’s impressive transformation into an “international class number six” (in the words of Klopp), and Lallana’s transition into a superbly well-rounded central midfielder and one of the finest players in the Premier League, that Can suddenly finds himself very much on the fringes of the starting 11. Few would have predicted it, but it is the German who has fallen down the pecking order while others have raised their game to another level.
Can’s Liverpool career to date has been a strange one. Ever since joining from Bayer Leverkusen for just under £10million in the summer of 2014, his role has never been defined for any extended period of time. We thought we were getting a primarily defensive-minded midfielder initially, but Brendan Rodgers always seemed hesitant to deploy Can in his supposedly favoured role.
Arguably, some of Can’s finest performances for the club came during 2014-15 when fielded as a right-sided centre-back in Rodgers’ 3-4-3 formation, which allowed him the time and space to drive forward and kick-start attacks from deep. A horribly failed experiment at the back end of that same season saw Can shunted out to right-back, culminating in the 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Stoke City.
Klopp’s arrival in October 2015 finally saw Can entrusted with a midfield berth, in which he flourished at times, becoming Klopp’s lynchpin in the middle of the park in the absence of the injured Henderson. It was fitting, perhaps, that it was Can who scored the first goal of the Klopp era — an equaliser at Anfield against Rubin Kazan.
To see the very best of Can, you only have to look at Liverpool’s first goal at Anfield against Borussia Dortmund, for which he picks up the ball at the halfway line, driving straight through Dortmund’s midfield and carving open their defence with a precise pass to assist Divock Origi in front of The Kop.
Can in full flow is a sight to behold. For a player so incredibly slow on the turn, he takes some stopping when he picks up speed. Technically, that assist was outstanding and it was not the only moment of creative brilliance Can has provided in his time at the club. His outside-of-the-boot lofted pass to Sturridge in the 6-1 thrashing of Southampton at St Mary’s in the League Cup last season also illustrated sublime vision and execution.
This season, when selected, Can has developed a new side to his game, showing a goalscoring instinct in a more advanced midfield role. We’ve seen Can chip in with three goals so far, two of which came with late runs into the box (against Crystal Palace and Watford) and the other a powerful strike from outside the area (against Bournemouth).
It is frustrating, therefore, that for a player with so many strings to his bow, he hasn’t really kicked on and established himself yet at Liverpool. That may seem harsh, given he’s only just about to turn 23 — and injuries have played a small part in disrupting his season so far. Yet, there is a sense that in his third season at the club, Can has not progressed to the degree which many of us would have hoped.
He’s an unusual player in that, for all his qualities, Can does not have one standout skill or specific function. He’s competent at many things, and at times capable of the spectacular, but it is still difficult to tell exactly what he offers and whether he is up to the level Liverpool require.
There are elements of his game that remain highly problematic and that he will need to iron out if he is to succeed at this level in the long-term. A combination of sloppy passing, poor decision-making and heavy first touches mean he is regularly guilty of surrendering possession — often in dangerous areas of the pitch. In comparison to the precision and consistency shown by his midfield colleagues, he is clearly a level below.
When selected as part of a heavily-rotated and youthful Liverpool side (the youngest starting 11 in the club’s history) against Plymouth Argyle at the weekend, this was a stage on which Can should have been expected to step up and lead by example, yet worryingly he didn’t particularly stand out or demonstrate his superior quality against League Two opposition. The same habits of poor decision-making and poor passing were still there to see.
These are the kind of opportunities Can must take if he is to establish himself as a long-term option for Klopp. For a manager who places so much importance on quick decision-making, rapid transitions and dominating games with controlled possession, Can’s deficiencies are a major concern.
It would be daft, of course, to write a player of his potential off in his early 20s, but for a club of Liverpool’s aspirations Can must improve or face the danger of being left behind. At his best, to quote his former manager, he can be a real Rolls Royce of a midfielder. The problem is, his form is so erratic that far too often we’re seeing a lumbering carthorse rather than the Rolls Royce he can be.
It’s a case of finding that level of consistency which Can’s performances have lacked in his Liverpool career so far. Henderson and Lallana are testament to Klopp’s ability to improve players, as well as their hunger to improve themselves. There’s no doubt Can has the right manager to help him fulfil his potential, but we’re approaching a point where we need to see some marked improvement from the German before the end of the season, or else Klopp might find himself looking to strengthen his midfield options in the summer.
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