THE debates are raging again about Emre Can.
As soon as you read that you’ll instantly know what you think of him. Your unconscious mind will access the ‘Emre Can File’ and remind your conscious mind of what you’ve decided following a few years of watching this young(ish) footballer on his developmental journey.
After his top-drawer performance against Arsenal at the weekend you’ll either be walking around smugly telling everyone that you were right, this lad does still have what it takes to make it in a red shirt, or you might be doubting how you’d written him off as having no chance. It might even have just added to the confusion inside your head about whether this lad is a great Liverpool captain in waiting or an inconsistent dud who would be better off playing for Stoke.
Whatever your opinion, I’ve come to realise over the last few years that football supporters need the likes of Can to give us something to talk about. Imagine if every player was clearly either good enough or not from the instant you first watched them play. Imagine how boring that would be. No more arguing in the pub with your mates and your uncles about strengths and weaknesses, or about how “even Graeme Souness misplaced passes” and “Steven Gerrard was sometimes shit” (both of those are true, by the way).
So, who am I to avoid jumping back into the conversation? I wrote a few weeks ago about the criticism Emre and Divock Origi had received this season, highlighting their respective strengths and the statistics which suggested we’d be pleased to have either of them if we’d never actually watched them play (a label you could put on the vast majority of players with whom we’re linked as potential signings, who all look great until you have to watch them trip over their own feet every week). Their ages alone suggest that they should be given more time to develop, but the big question is whether we want to watch them develop in front of our eyes.
As an aside, this is the key point I think lots of supporters miss when criticising the club for buying the likes of Sadio Mane from Southampton for £34 million when we could have bought him a couple of years earlier direct from Red Bull Salzburg for £11.8m. The reality is that the Mane we see now had already spent two years becoming accustomed to the Premier League and working out many of his weaknesses in front of the eyes of Southampton fans so that we didn’t have to put up with it on a weekly basis. You only had to listen to Neil Atkinson’s interview with a Southampton fan when we signed him to know that they’d seen plenty of things to moan about during his two-year spell. Watching Can over the past few seasons is what we get if we buy the player from the club before he moves to Southampton, West Ham or Sporting Lisbon. It’s taking Brendan Rodgers as a manager hoping that we’re getting Jose Mourinho just before he moves to Porto or Rafa Benitez just before he moves to Valencia, and is part of the much wider argument about whether or not we should need or want to do that at all in order to compete with our rivals.
On Emre in particular, though, something occurred to me after watching his performance against Arsenal that I’ve not heard discussed anywhere else when it comes to our enigmatic midfield powerhouse and which ties into a similar debate that’s raged at our club since Rodgers made clear he’d never buy a Claude Makelele-type player.
What is a defensive midfielder?
Just stop and think about that for a second. When you hear the words ‘defensive midfielder’ or ‘number six’, as our new Germanic boss likes to say, what do you think of?
There are at least a couple of different ways you might instinctively approach the question. When I hear the words ‘defensive midfielder’ I automatically think of a type of player and a way of playing, which is best summed up with the word ‘destructive’. I think of Makelele, Dietmar Hamann and Javier Mascherano (almost certainly because of my age). But if I go even further into the recesses of my brain I realise that when I hear ‘number six’ I think of something different. I don’t think of what I’d automatically consider to be a “defensive midfielder”, I think of someone in a deeper lying role who does more than just a destructive job. I think of Xabi Alonso, Andrea Pirlo or Gerrard in his final two seasons.
And this is the point which is interesting. When we’ve discussed all season about how nobody in our current squad can replace Jordan Henderson in that deep lying role when he’s absent, we haven’t discussed that every role in the team is completely different depending on who plays there and who we’re playing against. This goes for most arguments we have in life which begin from a complete failure on our parts to properly define what we mean when throwing words around and assuming that everyone has the same interpretation as us (I recently had one at home about different interpretations of the word ‘nagging’…).
Henderson is very much a number six and not a defensive midfielder in my eyes. His job is to dictate the pace of the game and the direction of our attacks. There’s a reason he’s good at that particular role and Can isn’t, and it’s the same reason that Makelele, Hamann and Mascherano aren’t as good as Alonso, Pirlo and Gerrard at it. Some players are better at moving the ball quickly than others, better at seeing two or three moves ahead of everyone around them and better at dictating the pace of the game. If you even think about the players I’ve mentioned and the others that pop into your head as you consider the question, you’ll realise that even the ones I’ve loosely grouped together have different strengths and weaknesses. Some are taller and better in the air than others. Some are nominally defensive and destructive but have more of a passing range than others. Some score and create goals regularly and others save the fancier part of the game for their limited YouTube highlights reel. Importantly, some are suited to some opponents and to some games more than others.
So, what of our Emre? I think we can all agree that he was excellent against Arsenal. I mentioned briefly on The Review show this week how well he played the role by starting 10 yards deeper than he has previously. Watch how from Petr Cech goal kicks he would drop into a back three to enable him to either attack the ball to deal with the aerial threat of Olivier Giroud or cover for Ragnar Klavan if the Estonian Man of the Century took the impetus of going first. Compare that to Arsenal’s two-man defensive midfield of Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin (arguably a number six and destructive midfielder combination) who allowed Simon Mignolet’s goal kick to drift over their heads for our first goal, meaning that Laurent Koscielny had to come into midfield to challenge Roberto Firmino for a header leaving us three-on-three when Bobby won the flick-on.
Small details like this shouldn’t be overlooked when assessing our players. Emre had clearly been drilled to take on that role the way he did and he carried it out with aplomb. As I left the game, his performance actually reminded me of Gerrard playing there in the 2013-14 season. By starting very deep he could see the whole game and attack the ball, rather than getting caught underneath it constantly and struggling to recover (remember Gerrard v Uruguay at the World Cup if you want an example of a world class player getting caught in the same way as our developing midfielder has in recent times). We even saw some long, raking passes from our tank which were Gerrard-esque.
I should say (before I have to turn my notifications off on Twitter) that I’m not for one second saying that Can is in the same stratosphere as Gerrard yet. I’m not even saying he’ll be there at any point in the future.
What I am saying, though, is that Emre might have shown us on Saturday evening another solution for something that we discussed on The Review show after the Leicester game. We said that without Henderson available for selection, we simply cannot play the same way because we have no-one else in the squad who can do what he does. Saturday showed that we can play a similar (if not exactly the same) system just by tweaking how Can carries out the number six role in Jordan’s absence.
In the first half against Leicester, Can played as if he was trying to be Henderson. He pressed the game high up the pitch and on at least two occasions was taken completely out of the game by missing the press and having the ball bypass him. The lesson there was that if he plays that role he should do it as himself and not as a Henderson impersonator but, to do so, we need to tweak how the team is set up.
On that note, it was interesting to discuss with Sean and Neil what formation we played against the Gunners. At the match and watching it back I’m still convinced it remained as a 4-3-3 throughout, with Gini Wijnaldum getting closer to Can at times while still playing on the left side of a three-man midfield rather than in a defensive two with Emre. Neil thought it was 4-2-3-1 in the first half, switching to 4-3-3 for the second. Whatever it actually was, it just shows how subtle differences in personnel or strategy can affect our perception of what we’re seeing.
Something else that Can’s performance against Arsenal also does is again raise the question of something I get wound up about every summer which Liverpool fans all over the world say when we get linked with more players: “BUT WHERE WILL HE FIT INTO THE STARTING 11?!”
This season has shown us for the 25th time in the past 25 years that you cannot win the league without a proper, fully functioning, strength-in-depth squad. Turning to Ben Woodburn and Trent Alexander-Arnold on the bench is lovely for all of the stories about the academy and player development, but when Manchester United are turning to Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Marcus Rashford and Marouane Fellaini and Chelsea are turning to Cesc Fabregas, Willian and Michy Batshuayi, there’s an imbalance that we’ll struggle to overcome without a season doused in the luck of the Irish and zero injuries.
I know it hasn’t been Jürgen Klopp’s style in the past to change how we play depending on the opposition, but I remember Rafa Benitez coming to the Premier League with Alonso and Luis Garcia then playing Big Sam’s Bolton and realising he needed a Peter Crouch and a Momo Sissoko to compete effectively in certain games.
Can’s performance at the very least shows us that there’s a place in our squad for a big, physical presence in games that call for it, so why not have a squad that allows us to pick the players most suited to the opposition each week?
Whether that physical presence option in the middle of the pitch ends up being Can might depend on how he does between now and the end of the season but I, for one, have seen enough to suggest he should be given more time and can at the very least fulfil a very important role as a squad player next season.
I have a feeling that if we let him go now we may regret it in five years’ time.
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