Emre Can’s Best Position?


Emre Can has proved to be one of Liverpool’s most exciting signings this summer. His physicality, determination and fearless approach have seen the young German become an instant hit for many Liverpool supporters during the club’s tour of the US. His versatility has been one of the main reasons Liverpool fans have been so thrilled with this latest purchase.


The young midfielder played a number of different positions for former club Bayer Leverkusen, leading him to be courted by European giant Bayern Munich – indeed, if Liverpool hadn’t signed the midfielder this summer the Bavarian club would have done so next July. Can’s versatility will be the subject of this piece and we’ll look to discover what Can’s strengths are and whether his statistics can tell us something more about this promising talent. Of course, as always when working with these kinds of statistics, caution is required. Can played in a different league last season (Germany’s Bundesliga) to those to whom he is being compared and his deployment in different roles for Leverkusen may give the player some strange numbers. Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that his minutes played is much lower than his fellow players; for example, Can played 2192 minutes last season compared to Steven Gerrard’s 2895, which means Gerrard had more time to have his figures affected. All in all, just keep an open mind and keep these warnings in fresh in the memory.

What about defensive midfield?

Emre Can's DM related figures show a worrying trend for the club captain.
Emre Can’s DM related figures show a worrying trend for the club captain.

Ah, defensive midfield or “DM” as people like to call it. The source of much angst amongst Liverpool supporters since Lucas Leiva’s body gave up, or even since Javier Mascherano left Merseyside for sunny Barcelona. Since then nobody has come close to “Masch” although Steven Gerrard’s noble attempts at reincarnation have seen the former England captain put in some fine performances as Brendan Rodgers’ ‘regista’. Can is another contender for Liverpool’s defensive midfield slot and he’d fit into either of Rodgers’ preferred systems of 433 or 4312. Can’s figures for the abilities needed to play in this position are quite positive in comparison to the Liverpool captain’s – although Can’s inconsistent positioning could have been a key factor in these figures becoming skewed in his favour. First of all, the young man is very dominant in the air, winning 59.62% of his aerial duels compared to 50% for Gerrard. This is a vital part of the DM role and Can seemingly does it better, using his muscular frame to bully opponents into submission. As an interesting side comparison, Liverpool centre-backs Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho boast figures of 69% and 55.4% respectively when it comes to aerial duels so the young German is already competing with seasoned centre-backs when it comes to aerial domination.

Can continues to top Gerrard in the “% of total duels won” category with the 20 year old winning 53.36% of his all-around duels – compared to Gerrard’s 50.34%. This typifies how strong the young man is because despite his inexperience he is still able to compete with seasoned international players across the Bundesliga – once he enters his mid-twenties he could be a really scary prospect in terms of physicality. Can also won more tackles per 90 minutes played last season with the former Bayer man registering an average of 2.42 per game compared to Gerrard’s slightly lower total of 2.21.

In the interest of fair play I have taken the opportunity to give Gerrard a toe-hold in the contest by including the blocks per 90 minutes played figure. Gerrard leads in this department with an average of 0.47 per game compared to Can’s 0.25 – this is a believable figure if you watch Gerrard’s performance at the base of the Liverpool midfield when they played Everton at Anfield at the start of 2014. That 4-0 rout was by no means an easy game with Liverpool often relying heavily on Gerrard to block shots – particularly from the edge of the penalty area. This is something Gerrard often does well for Liverpool. However, something not included in the graphic above is interceptions. This is a vital part of the defensive midfield role because winning the ball back is the paramount objective for this type of player. Interceptions are vital and can help start quick counter-attacks – something Liverpool excel at with their pace and invention up-front. Grimly for Gerrard, Can also dominates in this vital category with an average of 1.89 interceptions per 90 minutes played compared to Gerrard’s 1.46 – not a huge difference but nonetheless a difference.

These statistics demonstrate how Can can (apologies) dominate a game whilst simply defending. This kind of player hasn’t been seen at Anfield since Javier Mascherano and Rodgers would love it if Liverpool’s defensive issues could be fixed without hurting their attack – something which could happen with Gerrard’s set pieces taken out of the equation. It must also be pointed out that these statistics in no way make Emre Can a better player than Steven Gerrard, these figures are a small fragment of what makes up the DNA of a good player and Can has a very, very long way to go before he gets anywhere near Steven Gerrard.

What about a box-to-box shuttler?

This graphic shows that Can has a long way to go before he becomes truly comfortable with Liverpool's system.
This graphic shows that Can has a long way to go before he becomes truly comfortable with Liverpool’s system.

Playing as a box-to-box midfielder is possibly one of the hardest roles in any football team. This type of player is particularly hard-worked in a system like Liverpool’s when pressing in the opposition half is so high on the agenda. Liverpool are quite well off in this department with Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen setting good examples of how a “B2B” midfielder should operate. Both are excellent at pressing the ball high up the pitch and both are excellent at covering both ends of the pitch when attacking and defending – although both need to add a few more goals to their games. Can is a very similar player to Henderson because of his key attributes – he’s physical, athletic and deceptively skilful .

This role is similar to the “DM” because you have to be able to regain ball possession as often as possible and then you have to be able to use it wisely – like Gerrard is charged with doing for the Reds. The key difference is that rather than specialising in one area of the pitch – near the halfway line – this type of player has to be able to execute these objectives all around the field. Can is someone who could be able to do this because not only does he possess the above talents and skills but he’s also quick and fairly nimble for a man of his stature – he really is a very impressive blend of tough guy and ballet dancer, a rare thing.

So, we’re going to compare Can to Henderson because they seem to be similar. First of all, Henderson seems to be much more comfortable passing the ball forward with an average of 33.95 passes played forward per 90 minutes played, compared to 25.54 passes for Can. This is something that Can would need to add to his game because “B2B” players have to carry some sort of offensive threat with them, Brendan Rodgers is certainly a coach who could help in this department. Henderson is also ahead on the average amount of successful passes he makes per 90 minutes with 50.44 beating Can’s 33.01. Clearly Can could learn to use the ball more effectively but evidence has already been shown of Can trying to improve this part of his game. It may only be pre-season, but Can’s lovely slide-rule through ball to Raheem Sterling prior to the forward’s disallowed goal in New York was excellent vision and execution – more of this may be required as the season goes on but Can has clearly demonstrated that he has this kind of pass in his locker, it’s just that more of it needs to be seen.

Again, Henderson’s comfort with Liverpool’s passing system sees him trump Can’s average passing accuracy with 87% beating 78%. This is particularly impressive for the England international because he played more of his passes forward than Can which means he’s not just playing easy passes to boost his average accuracy – he’s trying to prod and probe the opposition, not just play it safe.

However, a further vital part of playing in this role for Brendan Rodgers is that you need to anticipate and intercept – like we mentioned before in the defensive midfield comparison. Can averages 1.89 interceptions per game compared to Henderson’s 0.98 which shows that Can is just as smart a player as Henderson but, perhaps, in different ways. The fact Can defeats both Henderson and Gerrard in this category speaks volumes.

We will learn more of Can during this upcoming Premier League season but what we already know is that he’s a talented player who can even fill in at left-back if he needs to, just like Mascherano did for Rafa’s Reds all those years ago – albeit at right-back. If he can be anywhere near as useful to Rodgers as Mascherano was for Rafael Benitez then the Reds faithful can expect a great player wearing the number 23 shirt once more.

Stats via Squawka


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