Often referred as a holding or a defensive midfielder, number six is arguably the most important position in football. Be it Pep’s tiki-taka, Conte’s three defender system or Klopp’s gegenpressing, the number 6 role is pivotal for any tactic. While other teams have Kante, Wanyama, and Fernandinho doing the job astutely well, Liverpool’s number 6 position has always been a spot of bother for them.
Jordan Henderson was given the defensive role last season and did well before getting injured. Emre Can took the duty for the last few games, doing a decent job as Liverpool secured a Champions League play-off place. During the season, there were many instances where the need for a specialist who can dictate more from deep was felt. Nonetheless, Jurgen Klopp decided to trust Henderson and didn’t buy any midfielder in the summer window.
The reds had a highly encouraging start to the season, winning four of the first five matches, qualifying for the Champions League in the process. The whole team seemed to be in a good rhythm as everyone knew their role. Henderson played the number six role while Emre can shined in the number eight role. A nightmare followed after a successful month as Pep Guardiola’s men destroyed Liverpool in the 5-0 defeat at the Etihad Stadium.
All the positive vibes around Liverpool vanished into thin air and was quickly replaced by a cloak of criticism and negativity, much of which fell on the captain, Henderson, who failed to win a single tackle that evening. Klopp’s men have won only one game since then despite dominating in most of the matches owing to the fact that they were simply not ruthless enough.
It’s worth noting that Liverpool’s midfield as a whole has been underperforming this season. Gini Wijnaldum has been virtually invisible most of the season while Henderson and Can have both been inconsistent. Coutinho’s deployment in midfield has brought in a spark of innovation, however, it isn’t enough. Adam Lallana’s absence has been visibly felt as Liverpool’s pressing this season has gone down this season. The Englishman’s intelligent ability to know when to trigger the press has been sorely missed.
Although it is clear that Henderson is not the best in the business, there is a reason why Klopp prefers him over Can at the number six position. The former Sunderland man covers the grass lot quicker than his German counterpart helping the defence when needed. Physicality is not his strongest feature but he knows when to drop back and assist the centre-backs. This is where the German’s inability is exposed. During Liverpool’s January slump last season Emre Can’s inability to fall deep often forced the full-backs to stay back, not able to contribute as much as they would like offensively.
Another line of thinking is that Emre Can is more suitable for the number eight role than Jordan Henderson. The German likes to play more offensively. His performance against Hoffenheim is the testimony to this fact. The 23-year-old made marauding runs forward using his physicality to get away from the opponents and scored two goals in the first 25 minutes, killing the hopes of Hoffenheim for any comeback.
The last few transfer windows have made it clear that Klopp doesn’t want a conventional defensive midfielder, simply because it doesn’t suit his style of play. Klopp has a penchant for versatile players and with Naby Keita joining the reds next season (January is also a possibility), one can envisage the German manager to rotate Henderson and Can in the number six position.
Henderson has his limitations in the deeper role. The fans often criticise him, forgetting the deeper role is not his natural position. He is not a destroyer but his positional sense, ability to switch play through his diagonal passes, making quick side-to-side passes, and setting the tempo of the game is better than anyone else in the squad. Perhaps, that’s the reason he has been an automatic starter in the deeper role whenever available.