AMID all the furor around Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk in recent days, it’s easy to look beyond the players who secured a top four finish to get Liverpool into a position where challenging for these kinds of players is now a possibility. Of course, we all want exciting new signings to arrive this summer and both Salah and van Dijk fit the bill — although we can expect both sagas to drag on for a while yet with a long way to go before any deals near completion, especially after Southampton’s apparent tantrum at van Dijk’s decision to make Merseyside his preferred destination this summer.
Unlike the last time Liverpool finished in the top four, in 2013-14, Liverpool managed it this season without relying on one star player. It was very much a team effort, and there appears little prospect of any key figures leaving this summer, with the possible exception of Daniel Sturridge whose future remains uncertain. There will always be rumours circulating around Phil Coutinho and Barcelona, but it would be a major surprise if that move ended up happening anytime soon.
Upgrading and strengthening the squad is, of course, imperative for next season in order to compete both domestically and in Europe. However, there is one player who played a crucial role in getting Liverpool over the line this season whose contract situation is now entering slightly worrying territory. Emre Can only has one year left on his current deal, and with murmurs around Juventus’s interest as potential suitors, sorting out Can’s future should be an absolute priority this summer.
It was a strange season for Can, who, throughout the first half of the campaign and throughout January, attracted plenty of criticism for some sloppy and ponderous performances in which he looked miles off the midfield maestro we saw at the back end of the 2015-16 season when he patrolled the midfield so impressively against Villarreal en route to the Europa League final. It would be difficult to rate his season out of 10, as you’re probably looking at a five or a six for the first half and then a good eight out of 10 for the last few months.
It later became clear that Can had been playing with an ongoing calf problem, which probably explains much of his disappointing form. He had, however, still managed to find the back of the net three times in the first half of the season in a variety of manners. A close-range finish against Crystal Palace, a header against Watford and a beauty from outside the box against Bournemouth.
Can eventually finished the season with five goals to his tally, adding crucial winning goals with a sumptuous long-range strike against Burnley before his spectacular, goal of the season-winning bicycle kick at Watford. Both hugely significant goals in terms of securing the points when Liverpool needed them most.
There were a number of unlikely heroes in the second half of the season for Liverpool who helped get things back on track after a dismal start to 2017. Simon Mignolet emerged as a pivotal figure, putting in several outstanding goalkeeping performances to suggest he deserves the chance to continue as Liverpool’s number one next season, while Lucas Leiva’s contributions in midfield to help grind out some gritty, determined victories should not go unnoticed.
Arguably, however, it was Can who stepped up and delivered most consistently and most influentially in the latter months of the season, showing great responsibility to plug the Jordan Henderson-shaped hole in the midfield with great aplomb. He demonstrated exactly why he has all the tools to form an integral part of Jürgen Klopp’s plans for next season and beyond.
Of course, as with any 23-year-old, there is plenty of room for Can to improve. He can still work on quickening the tempo with sharper passing, while he will also want to add more goals to his game. Yet this is a player with vast potential who Liverpool should do everything to ensure remains at Anfield this summer.
Purchased from Bayer Leverkusen for £9.75 million in 2014, Can was a signing typical of Fenway Sports Group — low risk, young and highly talented. There seems to have been a shift in emphasis this summer — a realisation that established, first team-ready quality needs to be bought in order for Liverpool to compete with their rivals. Yet for these owners and this manager, developing talent will always be a key part of the vision for the club and with a player of Can’s ability, it would be a waste of time if he were to now move on and fulfil his potential elsewhere. The worst case scenario would be if Liverpool left the situation unresolved in which case there would be a risk of losing Can on a free transfer next summer — a player whose market value is probably in the region of £20-30m. That needs to be avoided at all costs.
We’ve all seen exactly what he can offer and you would think, with greater experience and continued coaching time under Klopp’s management, Can will only continue to get better. His starting position next season is by no means guaranteed, depending on Henderson’s return from injury — it might be a case of using Can in some matches, where his physical attributes and aerial ability are needed most, while Henderson might be preferable in situations where the onus is on Liverpool to set the tempo. Competition for places would be raised further by any midfield arrival this summer, such as Naby Keita from RB Leipzig.
What is absolutely clear, however, is that Klopp needs to build a strong squad rather than just a very good starting 11. Can certainly should be a part of that, and this summer should be all about continuity and supplementing the current squad with additional quality, rather than losing any of its key components. In Can, Liverpool have a young midfielder with great potential. Tying his future down with a new contract is just as important as any new signing Liverpool make this summer.