Emre Can - Liverpool's most useful player at Brendan Rodgers' disposal
While Can favours a midfield role, he has also been the ideal candidate for a ball-playing centre back at Liverpool
"The most complete player I have seen in my career". Those were the emphatic words of former Dortmund and Tottenham player Steffen Freund, following an interview during the FIFA U17's World Cup in 2011. Then coach of the German side, Freund was left fawning over his side's captain, who scored one of the goals of the tournament. Despite not being able to lead his team to glory, Emre Can established himself as one of the brightest prospects in world football at the time.
A great deal of patience had to be shown by Can following his move to Liverpool in the summer. It seemed as a young signing he may find himself on the bench in the early stages of his career at Anfield more often than not. It proved a trend that would soon be bucked, however, as a shrewd tactical change made by Brendan Rodgers saw his team revert to an offensive 3-4-2-1 formation. It allowed Can to come into the side in an unconventional if not entirely foreign role in the team.
Speaking to Brendan Rodgers after a resilient 2-0 away win against Aston Villa, WhoScored.com questioned the motive behind the change in formation and whether it would be the system in place for the rest of the season. Rodgers spoke of the importance of maintaining his distinguished style with which he prefers to play, but confirmed that the extra body behind the ball allows his team to build attacks, keep possession and penetrate at will. Rodgers continued, singling out Can's contribution in the match, stating “Emre, what a wonderful player he is. His composure, calmness and strength was very impressive”.
It’s this composure at the back that has perhaps been most impressive from the young German. Liverpool had committed 14 errors leading to a chance, with 6 directly resulting in a goal in the 17 league matches prior to Can playing in the back three. In the league outings thereafter they have collectively committed just 1 error that has led to a shot. Moreover, Liverpool have conceded just 3 goals in 5 league matches with Can at centre back (0.6 per game) compared to conceding 24 goals in 17 beforehand (1.4 per game).
Can has proven to be the ideal candidate for this role as the ball-playing centre back in the side, albeit following an enforced inclusion in the XI due to injuries and poor form from the defenders available to Rodgers. It's no secret that Can favours a midfield role and it’s something that the manager clearly agrees with, stating in his post-match press conference at Villa Park “He (Can) is a central midfield player.”
The player himself has said that a midfield role allows him to exhibit both his attacking and defensive prowess, but Can has also stated on several occasions that he is more than happy to play in whichever position is required, “I see myself more as a central midfielder in principle, but I do not care. I play wherever (the) coach and team need me.”
His true development started at the age of just 15, making the switch from his hometown club Frankfurt to the illustrious Bayern academy. Due to Can's towering stature, it took just a single training session with the U15s for the staff to realise he would not be out of place in the A-Jugend (U18/19s).
His career path would follow a similarly fast-tracked theme. At 17 he was promoted from the A-Jugend to the reserves and Can made his senior debut in the 2012 DFL-Supercup a year later - drawing comparisons to Bayern's midfield maestro Bastian Schweinsteiger during his time at the club.
Can acknowledged that chances may well be limited in a team beginning their ascent to potential European domination, and those concerns were accentuated following a conversation with Pep Guardiola in 2013. Despite his admiration of the versatile powerhouse, Pep explained how positions for a midfield role were highly competitive and he could not promise Can the playing time he craved.
Clubs were put on high alert due to Can's unrest. Augsburg were one of the teams to show a keen interest, but it was European football and a recommendation from Toni Kroos that lured Can to Bayer Leverkusen. Bayern’s CEO, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, also recalled the loan spell of Kroos - as well as Lahm and Alaba's - as having been successful case studies to the cause, adding “Emre Can is one of the great talents of German football”, hinting at a possible return to the club in the future.
Coincidently, Former Liverpool player and fan favourite Sami Hyypiä was the man at the helm at Leverkusen at the time of Can's arrival. Can’s versatility was quickly apparent, playing in 5 different roles to a comfortable degree, including filling in for Boenisch at left back for 8 matches in the campaign, gaining a WhoScored.com rating of 7.90 in that position.
From such a berth, he also averaged more dribbles per game (4.6) than any other left-back in the Bundesliga last season. Can praised Hyypiä’s role in the development of his career, pointing out the trust shown towards him to include him in his squad so readily, undeterred by his lack of experience.
The use of his left foot and heading are both attributes that Can has noted as weaknesses and areas to improve upon, while there were also question marks over his defensive positioning during his time at Leverkusen whilst playing left-back. Nevertheless here is a player that has shown on several occasions in his career that he does not shy away from a challenge and is always looking to improve.
A case in point to confirm that Can is by no means the finished article was a clumsy challenge on Eden Hazard in midweek, leading to the opening goal from the spot for Chelsea in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final. Can recovered well in such a high-pressure affair though, impressively completing 4 dribbles and making 6 tackles to earn a WhoScored.com rating of 7.12 by the final whistle.
It may well be a risk to play a 21-year-old who is not without his few defensive flaws but more than anything the foul on Hazard highlighted Can’s youthful naivety rather than the fact that here was a player being played in a role he was not comfortable with. The youngster has instead proven capable of offering a great deal to the side from the back, not only from a defensive standpoint but also in terms of building play. As they say in Germany “die beste verteidigung ist der angriff” - 'attack is the best form of defence'.
There will always be room for improvement in any player at such an age, and Joachim Löw is planning ahead to Euro 2016 with the intention of using Can amongst a group of upcoming German talent. Fans have already seen glimpses of his passing ability and the threat he possesses when marauding forward. Whether Can will remain at centre-back or could be viewed as a long term replacement for Gerrard remains to be seen. One thing for sure is that Liverpool appear to have got themselves a real bargain.