I don’t often like to use the term ‘overrated’, as it tends to be thrown around without any real meaning all too often. However, I do believe that among many Liverpool fans, Emre Can has become somewhat ‘overrated’ during his first season in England. On the flip side, he has shown the qualities of a potentially top class player. This is not a contradiction, but merely a more measured and realistic assessment of the German. We have a rough diamond, who has at times been lauded as ‘the next Gerrard’ following a string of impressive performances in his debut season at Liverpool. Such claims are premature, and it’s easy to forget the many rash tackles and moments of positional unawareness which prove that Can is far from the finished article. His powerful runs, range of passing and composure on the ball are assets which will need to be supplemented by improved tactical nous and consistency in his levels of performance if Can is to fulfil his considerable potential. He is at the right club to do so, but finding his best position to maximise these attributes is essential in his development.
Throughout last season, we saw Can deployed in a variety of roles- perhaps more than anyone else in the squad, such is his versatility. Initially, he struggled to find a place in the side following his move from Leverkusen, until making a standout midfield performance which yielded his only Liverpool goal to date, versus Chelsea at Anfield. This was then followed by a strange and unjust lack of games, with Can not being rewarded for his promising display. It was during that narrow 1-0 win at Turf Moor back on Boxing Day when Rodgers introduced Can to replace Kolo Toure, not in midfield, but bizarrely enough, at right centre back in a 3-4-3 system. Can looked at home in the role, and continued to establish himself in this niche position over the following months, turning in many excellent performances in this new system as his reputation grew considerably to the point where he is probably considered the best of Liverpool’s mixed bag of summer signings from 2014. However, as Liverpool’s season rapidly unravelled, Can was shifted well out his comfort zone at right back as Rodgers reverted to a standard 4 at the back formation. This clearly didn’t suit Can, and he was exposed regularly by the pace of opposition wingers.
Thankfully, Liverpool have agreed a deal for Nathaniel Clyne who will sign this week and take the right back spot, relieving Can of his duties in this area. Therefore, you may ask, where does Can fit in next season? It seems clear to me his future is in midfield. A terrific Cruyff turn and 20 yard finish for Germany U21s was an example of what Can has to offer further up the pitch. At this point I can only assume that we will play a 4 at the back system next season, which could be a diamond of the 2013/14 style, a traditional 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. There are several factors to consider regarding where Can will play. Most importantly, I believe Can should definitely have a prominent role in the side. That doesn’t necessarily mean he starts every game, but he needs regular minutes and has a lot to offer. Furthermore, we already have two established international box-to-box midfielders in Jordan Henderson and James Milner. Both of these players will start- Henderson because he has been an integral part of the side for a while now, and Milner because he was guaranteed a starting role in central midfield upon joining the club.
Therefore, whether it’s part of a midfield trio in a 4-3-3 or at the base of a midfield diamond, I would like to see Can play in a deep midfield role next season. Not as an orthodox defensive midfielder, but at least starting in a deep position. This will take time for Can to interpret and adapt to, regarding positional discipline, but I believe he has the attributes to master the role. With the energy of Henderson and Milner on either side, he will have adequate cover and this will allow him to push up-field when the chance presents itself and with practice he can learn to dictate matches from deep, using his intelligent selection of passes. He will need to time his forward runs well so as not to leave his position unoccupied too often, but this seems to be the most suitable role for Can, allowing him space to stride into but also making use of his physical strength to shield the defence. Given that defensive midfield has been a problem position for Liverpool since the days of Mascherano, if Can is able to learn this role it will not only be hugely beneficial for his own reading of the game, but also this could provide a long term solution for Liverpool in years ahead.
This will take time and patience, and in some situations the experience of Lucas in this position may be preferable. Perhaps in the future Can will assume a more advanced box-to-box role, pushing the likes of Henderson and Milner. In domestic cup ties there could be an opportunity for Can to play further forward too. Having this degree of competition should accelerate Can’s development considerably if he wants to cement a position which allows him to play further forward with fewer defensive responsibilities. If Liverpool were to sign a new defensive midfielder this summer, then Can’s place in the side would be less assured. But I feel with the right coaching, match experience and the work rate of Henderson and Milner either side of him, the deployment of Can in a deep midfield role could be the most suitable and effective position for the German in the upcoming season.