What’s next for Emre Can, as Brendan Rodgers considers how best to use his in form German…
Emre Can has been in wonderful form for Liverpool since the turn of the year – he’s played a starring role in our mid-season revival, with the Reds unbeaten in the league since the German was welcomed into our defensive three.
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However, with defensive midfield stalwart Lucas Leiva ruled out for six weeks through injury, and with a £20m defender sitting on the substitutes bench, what’s next for our 21-year-old German starlet?
When Can arrived from Bayer Leverkusen for a fee of £9.75m last summer, he was widely dubbed a ‘versatile operator’, as he was in this scout report from the Daily Mirror.
Considering his age and his lack of first-team experience – Can had only played 33 league matches during spells with Leverkusen and their domestic rivals Bayern Munich – most Liverpool fans expected him to be just that – a useful rotation option who would grow into one role or another when eventually given his chance.
That’s just how he started off as well. In his first six months at the club, taking us up to the end of November, he made just eight first-team appearances in all competitions, with his deflected goal against Chelsea the only notable highlight, despite some promising signs.
However, come December, with Liverpool struggling in the league and already out of the Champions League – the appeals to see what Can could do were growing more and more vocal – we needed a change and some fresh ideas.
Brendan Rodgers elected to trial a 3-4-3 formation, starting in the 3-0 defeat to Manchester United – a game which Can didn’t play in – our last defeat in any competition inside 90 minutes this season.
After an injury to the already struggling Dejan Lovren, and with Kolo Toure preparing to depart for the Africa Cup of Nations, Can was given a surprise opportunity alongside Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho – and boy, did he take advantage of it!
Can started the Boxing Day game against Burnley and hasn’t looked back since, helping us secure six wins and two draws in eight Premier League games, along with five much-needed clean sheets.
He’s helped breath new life into those around him, particularly goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who has looked like a new man since Can’s inclusion in the team – having also returned to the starting XI on Boxing Day.
For Liverpool, everything – our unfortunate Capital One Cup semi-final defeat aside – has gone near perfectly since Can’s inclusion in the side: our defence is more solid, we finally have a ball-playing defender who can take the ball out from the back, and we are moving up the league table towards those Champions League places.
So why change anything? Brendan Rodgers has already promised that Can will remain in defence, despite the injury to Lucas. Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson were the central pair in the 3-2 win over Tottenham on Tuesday, while Joe Allen will remain as a back-up option in the hole between defence and midfield.
Rodgers, who was quoted by the Liverpool Echo prior to that game, said: “Lucas has been very important for us but there will be an opportunity for someone else.”
“Eventually, Can will be a player who plays further forwards and there might be games when I do think that but you also have to remember the balance of the team as well, which is very good at the moment.
“It’s four clean sheets in a row and defensively we have been very strong. With Emre you can see the importance of his role and the position he plays in there. He was immense at the weekend in a real physical game.
“Why disrupt that and try and fix something that could actually create another problem? The balance of the team is fine at the moment.”
So what changed? After an hour of the game against Tottenham, Gerrard was withdrawn, Lovren was sent on and Can was pushed forward into midfield – Liverpool went onto win the game, with Can among the contenders for man of the match.
Rodgers’ reasoning was sound, but the absence of Lucas brings with it it’s own problem – we don’t have another holding midfielder – Gerrard was a passenger for much of the game against Spurs, while Allen has struggled so far this term.
The absence of a quality holding player leaves us exposed, with a hole between the defence and midfield – particularly troubling when playing a back three – something that Tottenham exposed on more than one occasion.
So who better to fill that hole than Mr. versatility, Emre Can, a player who is accustomed to the role and sees himself as a midfielder. Rodgers might have doubts over whether he’s giving the youngster too much to think about too soon, but he hasn’t let us down yet.
With Lovren and Toure back, and with Glen Johnson also capable of filling in, why not experiment with the team while the opportunity is there – starting with an FA Cup tie against Crystal Palace, which is our next fixture on Saturday evening?
We are desperate to find a player capable of doing the impossible, and replacing long-serving captain Gerrard when he leaves the club for LA Galaxy next summer, but why look if we’ve already found just the man?
Can has all the assets to play in a midfield role – he is tall, strong, quick on his feet and powerful in possession – imagine the player we could have if he is developed in the right way.
He is coming on leaps and bounds in every single game he’s playing in right now, so why not ensure that he’s improving in his favoured position, rather than one that he can play in when required?
This rapid development is not a sudden occurrence, Can has been approaching this level for over two years, as former Liverpool star Dietmar Hamann told our official website last month.
Our scouts deserve huge credit for unearthing one of the brightest young talents in Europe. While not everyone might recognise that yet, Can has a great future ahead of him for both club and country.
The next Steven Gerrard? That’s quite some expectation to match, but he’s the first player in recent memory who has shown the same passion, desire and willingness to play anywhere on the pitch for the sake of the team, as our iconic captain.
Give Can his chance in midfield and he might just surprise you. The time to build for the future is now, the time to unleash Can’s true potential is right now.