For the first time since arriving at Liverpool back in June 2014, Emre Can has established himself as an automatic starter in the position we all hoped he would – holding midfield.
Granted, he’s been deployed centrally by Jurgen Klopp for most of the season, but it’s only in the past month or so that he’s found the consistency that rightly sees him as the first central midfielder on the team-sheet. Now, he’s more important centrally than skipper Jordan Henderson, the club’s longest serving player Lucas, £15m Joe Allen or the club’s highest paid player James Milner – who plays on the wing instead.
Klopp loves his 6 ft. 2″ battering ram in the middle and moves Can’s more experienced counterparts around as a result. Can even took the first penalty in the League Cup final shoot-out – scoring to boot.
For a man only just turned 22, that’s some achievement – especially considering the journey he’s taken to get here since his £9.75m switch from Bayer Leverkusen.
Rodgers tried to ease him in gently but pulled him out of the firing line early on as it became obvious Liverpool weren’t going to compete for the Premier League title again. Can bagged a goal against Chelsea at Anfield but didn’t feature properly until our former manager stumbled on a wing-back formation which incorporated Can as a right-sided central defender.
It was in this position the German began to purr, with Rodgers accurately describing him a ‘Rolls-Royce’ footballer. Can’s physicality and ability to drive forward was praised by fans, who immediately noticed attributes we lacked in midfield…
And for the final months of a miserable 2014/15 campaign and an entire pre-season, supporters urged Rodgers to turn Can into a midfield general.
Rodgers toyed with the idea, but it was his replacement Klopp who immediately put it into fruition.
The German trusted his countryman in the middle from Day One, and it was Can who scored the first goal of the boss’s tenure – at home to Rubin Kazan in the Europa League.
But Can’s seamless transition from utility defender into barnstorming midfielder wasn’t so seamless, and in truth – ignoring the player’s age – he was poor in midfield for a section of this season. He was too frantic on the ball – trying to control it too quickly, overrunning it, making silly decisions or giving away unnecessary fouls.
His composure had left him. Not so much Rolls-Royce, Can’s play mimicked a scrambler motorbike – noisy, quick, but downright messy.
Since scoring a goal in the 6-0 Aston Villa pummelling on February 14 though, Can’s brought poise and self-control to an already robust and powerful game.
Whatever Klopp’s said to him privately, it’s worked. Although the faith the manager’s had in keeping Can in the team through his less-assured times must have played its part as well.
In the six games since, Liverpool have beaten both Manchester clubs, Crystal Palace and Augsburg – and Can’s perhaps shone brightest. He’s blessed with physical attributes like very few others his age, but thankfully his desire and hunger matches it. The capped German doesn’t sit pretty, but hollers tactical instructions at teammates (some would still consider that rich), barks at the ref and marshals the side centrally.
Technically – he’s got it all. In fact, his natural ability has almost worked against him in the past as it’s encouraged him to try stupid things – but now – he’s getting the balance right. Can spreads the play, drives forward only when there’s space, sits tight when there isn’t and wows us all with a pirouette when the time is right.
If there were any doubts about Can’s importance to Klopp, then a tactical decision made at Selhurst Park last time out tells us everything. When Milner was sent off, Klopp could have easily brought on Kolo Toure for Can to add a centre-back, having already subbed off Jon Flanagan.
Instead, he trusted the German to control the middle of the park centrally ahead of effectively just two defenders, with Alberto Moreno having given up defensive duties. Can’s platform saw us actually better our opponents when we were down to ten, and clinch a crucial 2-1 win.
No more will Can be slotted into the side in various positions when we’re short. He’s a central midfielder, possibly our best one and a future captain in waiting.