Has Emre Can’s Liverpool Career Stalled?

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - Monday, January 2, 2017: Liverpool's Emre Can in action against Sunderland during the FA Premier League match at the Stadium of Light. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

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.

PRESTON, ENGLAND - Saturday, July 19, 2014: Liverpool's Emre Can in action against Preston North End during a preseason friendly match at Deepdale Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

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.

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - Tuesday, August 23, 2016: Liverpool's Emre Can is treated for an injury during the Football League Cup 2nd Round match against Burton Albion at the Pirelli Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

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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  1. Sums up my feelings on Can really well!

  2. Can’s acceleration is annoyingly slow. It’s a lot like Andy Carroll’s – seems to take forever to get to top speed. That’s my biggest gripe about him.

  3. He was some peoples (inc. mine) player of the season last year. He needs an extended run in the team in a fixed position to get back to his best. We need to hold onto him for next season for when we get CL. Then again he may drop down the pecking order if we sign another mid-f in Summer.

  4. Kev Nelson

    Jurgen’s Klopp often says a lot of very positive things about his players. If Daniel Sturridge finds himself surplus to requirements, then so too can Emre Can, or the International Class Jordan Henderson. Both midfielders are upgradable in the evolution of this team and getting it to where we can only assume Herr Klopp wishes to take it. Like Emre a lot, but like Henderson (who can also blow hot and cold) he is never far away from an injury.

  5. Let’s give the boy a chance to continue to develop under Klopp. He is still 22 (He will turn 23 on 12th Jan). He’s younger than Kevin Stewart, much younger than Coutinho…

    Can, along with Origi, will be important members of our squad for next year’s champions League. Can has that uniquely strong determination, for his age, to bulldoze through the whole opponents wall to get the results for us.

  6. Good article this. Picked up on genuine issues without going over the top. I criticised Emre Can last season about the same things you’ve highlighted hear and I got pelters for it, but now it seems people are picking up on it. Like you, I believe he has the potential to become a top quality player, but the little things in his game that he does wrong are the things that will get him dropped. He often takes five touches when two, or even one, will suffice. I think it was John Gibbons who once said that Emre Can wants the game to be played at his own pace, which isn’t necessarily the pace of the rest of the team.

    These things, however, are things that can be coached out of him, and at only 22 you’d think that Klopp has enough time on his side to make Emre Can into the superstar we all hope he can become.

  7. He needs to simplify his game and his passes. He tends to make silly mistakes when he thinks he is Ronaldinho or Messi and tries to showboat too much.

  8. People are so quick to forget. He was great last season and would have been one of the first names on the team sheet for most fans. There was much more clamor to replace Henderson than Can.

    He has had issues with injury and isn’t back up to full speed yet. Remember while he has played a lot of games for someone of his age they have been in a wide range of positions, tactics and systems.

    A lot of the above is also applicable to Origi who people seem to either love or hate depending on how he has played in the last couple of games. These kids need a run of games in a consistent position with experienced players around them before we can expect them to be consistently winning games for us. The difficulty is always trying to balance immediate success with developing individual players and the squad as a whole. But if we are going to out perform the likes of Chelsea, Utd and City then we are probably going to have to persevere with developing younger players and accept that will mean we maybe we dont win every game right now.

    Hopefully with Europe next season there will be plenty of game time for everyone.

    • People are quick to forget that Can had a very mixed season last time around, but the young German seems to have an enchanted amnesia cloud around him that makes people only remember his good performances – like a reverse of Jordan Henderson. Had a clanger in Rodgers’ last match, played a big part in Klopp’s first loss (Palace), the 0-3 West Ham loss, 0-1 Man U, the loss to Leicester, etc. etc.

      And when Klopp spoke about players losing their heads in the Europa League final, there was no more pointed example than Can. The reason that everyone was clamoring for changes to shore up the midfield was because he completely lost the plot.

      Yes, he had highlights. I think he has potential. But too many were too ready to say he was already great, should be captain, when he has been a mixed bag since his arrival. And the style of play that has seen us excel this season doesn’t real suit his strengths – and his weaknesses. We’ll just have to wait and see. Hopefully, he does fulfill that potential and we do have a magnificent player with some great hair.

  9. Harsh, whatever he is is…..he will never be ‘a lumbering carthorse’

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