EMRE Can’s Burnley winner last week not only consolidated Liverpool’s Champions League ambitions but also stuck a metaphorical two fingers up at sections of the home crowd. As he slid triumphantly in front of The Kop, there was as much anger and pent up frustration on show as joy in his heart.
Can splits opinion in every sense. Rated as a Rolls Royce of a footballer with all the natural gifts by some; instead a clumsy, oafish presence by his critics. Even for those who see his potential – albeit exhibited sporadically – he can veer from awful to sublime in the course of one afternoon. Never was this more obviously demonstrated than last Sunday when an error-strewn first half from the German was forgiven for a beautifully struck right-foot shot from distance which found the bottom corner and earned three vital points.
Can was the main focus for the angst of a frustrated Anfield gathering in a first period which was arguably Liverpool’s worst of the season. But, he certainly wasn’t alone in errant positioning, sloppy passing and a lackadaisical approach.
However, Can’s star among the home support has fallen quickly; not aided by unresolved contract talk surrounding increased wage demands. Nothing angers and alienates Liverpool fans more than players stalling at the prospect of signing or re-signing for their beloved club.
Better players have suffered at the hands of a Kop sensing rejection. Just ask Raheem Sterling, or for those with longer memories, Steve McManaman.
Sterling and McManaman committed the cardinal sin of suggesting pastures new offered greater career progression and better prospects of winning trophies, whereas a reflective Can might just be looking for regular first team football.
Last season however, when he started 46 games, Can seemed on the verge of a long, successful Liverpool career. Jürgen Klopp spoke of the quality he recognised in the Liverpool squad and of the need to develop existing personnel. Can was one of a number of players signed by Brendan Rodgers who made obvious progress in terms of improved conditioning and impact.
When injury looked set to rule him out towards the end of last season, his rapid return for the second leg of the Europa League semi-final against Villarreal was deemed a major fitness gamble by Klopp. Can slotted in as though he’d never been away; he ran the game, showing remarkable drive, finesse on the ball and hitherto unseen stamina as the Reds eased to the final. At the time, Can looked like the definition of a Klopp ‘project’; a player with a ‘high-ceiling’ who would only develop further under the close tutelage of his German coach.
This campaign has seen the upward trajectory of 23-year-old former Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen midfielder hit the buffers. Since missing the opening phase of the campaign after Euro 2016, the season has been an arduous struggle to re-impose himself as a key member of the squad.
When selected, Can has looked consistently too slow on the ball to be part of a fluid midfield three, unable to recycle possession quickly enough to keep the Reds’ passing movements going at a pace to stretch deep-lying defences.
Until Jordan Henderson’s recent knock, Can had occasionally deputised for either the more mobile Gini Wijnaldum or naturally more creative and considered Adam Lallana in advanced midfield positions. Further up the pitch, a ponderous Can has looked a fish out of water in a Liverpool team which is at its best playing on instinct at a high tempo.
This week, he revealed that fitness issues have hampered his performance all season. However, he also alluded to being played out of position by Klopp and a preference for Henderson’s deeper number six role. Against Arsenal recently, Can ably demonstrated his ability to set an attacking rhythm from deep, and an underrated liking for a scrap and putting his foot in when Liverpool were forced onto the back foot during the second half.
He commented after the Burnley game, “When I play at the eight I have to go forward and sprint more and I had a few problems with my calf. When I play at six you are in the middle and you have to make challenges and I don’t have to go far away”.
Can was at pains to point out that the contract stand-off, which will be resolved one way or the other in the summer, has nothing to do with money; although it would be naïve to think his decision to sign wouldn’t be swayed by doubling his current salary. As ever, the issue is complicated by a sense that every recruitment, contract and salary issue at the club is analysed with a financial fine-toothed comb for value.
Leaving money aside, Can’s personal uncertainty might rest on Klopp’s revised opinion of a player he has seldom included in his first choice line-up this season. If the manager has reluctantly concluded his compatriot isn’t suited to the speed, fleet-of-foot, and roaming required of a Liverpool midfielder, then maybe Can’s Anfield days are numbered.
Can also stated tellingly last weekend: Maybe the trainer has to decide but I feel good at the moment”. The player is entitled back himself but if he is to remain beyond this season (it would be folly to allow his contract to expire) he must probably accept his lot as Henderson’s deputy.
Jamie Carragher, also speaking last weekend concurs, “Can’s big problem is that I don’t think he’s a versatile player. The only position I think he can play is the one he played (against Burnley), the sitting midfielder, because he needs legs around him. Klopp is playing Henderson ahead of him”.
The issue for Klopp, especially with the prospect of Champions League football next season is that the squad needs bolstering not reducing even further. Players able to deputise, without a huge drop in standards, will be crucial if the Reds are to compete on two fronts. The manager can ill-afford to bed in another new prospect in favour of a player with 119 Liverpool games already under his belt. Complicating the matter still further is Henderson’s recent injury record; persistent heel and foot problems which have seen him miss large chunks of the past two seasons.
Klopp should also bear in mind Can might still find his best position even further back. Under Rodgers he enjoyed a promising stint as the right-sided option in a back three. It would be a surprise to see the manager opt for a similar formation but a longer-term future at centre-half isn’t entirely out of the question.
Whatever the considerations of Can and Klopp, to lose all faith in a player at the age of 23 – most probably with his best years still ahead of him – would fly in the face of the club’s and the manager’s apparent development model.
It is worth remembering that when Emre left Bayern for Leverkusen in 2013 – with a buy-back clause – Chairman and former great Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said, “Emre Can is one of the biggest talents in German football” and spoke of his potential development in the same terms as Toni Kroos, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba.
After nearly three seasons in a Red shirt Liverpool fans have yet to see Can mature into the consistent, quality performer expected of a regular German international. Occasional flashes of brilliance still excite, but at this juncture he has still has it all to prove to Liverpool supporters and a once-smitten manager before his future is settled.