It was back in August, after the draw away to Arsenal, that I wrote for Anfield Index on the importance of Emre Can to Liverpool after demonstrating he was capable of a positionally disciplined performance in a key area of the pitch. I felt he Can would become an important member of the Liverpool team this season, little did I imagine he would become integral, a vital cog almost irreplaceable when absent.
Can had his fair share of doubters last season, but because he was being played out of position, I could understand some fans having misconceptions of the elegant German. However, even throughout this season, with him playing in his natural position, there are still some unconvinced by him in central midfield. It is a view I struggle to fathom, despite him having a handful of poor performances. All players have bad games and suffer dips in form, but add to that the fact he only turned 22 years of age in January and I’m somewhat perplexed by what some people see and perhaps expect. The difference in the Liverpool midfield, and the team, when he is not there is striking.
It’s not just a physical presence and tackling that he offers, it’s fantastic technical ability and an ability to break the lines with his dribbling. Liverpool’s first goal against Borussia Dortmund at Anfield was a prime example of this; he played two one-two’s that broke through the Dortmund midfield before an excellent pass through for Divock Origi to score. That combination of size, athleticism, work-rate, technique, skill, vision and composure is rare.
At the beginning of the season, it was James Milner starting in central midfield for Liverpool and as much as Milner offers an unquestionable level of effort and endeavour, his inability to tackle and lack of positional sense left the Liverpool midfield and back line exposed. His natural inclination to drift wide may compliment his crossing ability from open play, but it leaves huge gaps that opponents capitalise on in transitions. With Can playing, it allows Milner to be in his natural wide position that has been a fruitful one for him and Liverpool in recent months, with him getting an incredible 8 assists in his last 10 games in all competitions. He now has an impressive 5 goals and 11 assists in the Premier League this season and although he is Liverpool’s regular set piece taker, his dead ball delivery has been very poor, which probably makes his statistic all the more credible. His recent up-turn in form has coincided with Adam Lallana also playing better. Their tireless pressing adds value to the team and their improvement on the ball has also been an important part of Liverpool’s better run of results of late, with Jürgen Klopp using them to better effect in positions that benefit from a better functioning midfield.
That is a big part of Can’s value on the pitch, he facilitates other players, providing them the platform to play. There is simply nobody else in the Liverpool squad who can enforce the midfield with the quality and authority that Can does and it was evident in Villarreal’s late goal in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final. Not only was Alberto Moreno woefully out of position, but so was the central midfield and it was Villarreal’s runners that exposed that space they had left in behind them. Lucas Leiva has been a great servant to Liverpool, but he is incapable of replicating the power, mobility, technique, vision and positional sense of Can.
The injury Can sustained in the dramatic Europe League quarter-final win over Dortmund has hurt a Liverpool midfield already missing Jordan Henderson and that was particularly felt against Villarreal. So, the fact that he has resumed training and is rumoured to be under consideration for selection on Thursday night’s crucial semi-final second leg must be a massive boost for Klopp and his sides’ chances of progression against a tricky Villarreal side that can be tough to break down. Can’s ability to win the ball and take opponents out of the game as he strides forward with the ball could be a difference maker in a tight game. The young German has flourished under Klopp and Liverpool’s hopes of finishing the season with a trophy could yet rest on his ample shoulders.