Villarreal at home in the Europa League semi-final second-leg last season taught us much about Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side. We learnt that the Reds had bottle as they came back from a 1-0 loss at El Madrigal to win 3-1 on aggregate, that they could perform in the big games when it matters most and that Emre Can was a vital cog in the way the German tactician wants to play.
The first two points remain valid this term – Liverpool are top of the top six ‘mini league’ in Premier League action and showed real spirit to get their first win of 2017 against Spurs last weekend with their form at a real low – but the latter has shifted since that warm May evening. Can was hurried back from an ankle injury that had forced him out of the Reds’ five fixtures prior to taking on the Yellow Submarine for a spot in the final, which was quite the statement given that Klopp had been careful with other injured players through his debut campaign and initial fears were that the midfielder himself would miss almost all of the Merseysiders’ remaining games of 2015/16.
The Liverpool boss’ action shouldn’t really have come as a surprise, though. From day one Klopp looked eager to utilise Can in his favoured central midfield role, pulling him out of the centre-back/right-back cycle that had hindered him under Brendan Rodgers and slotting him into the middle of the pitch immediately against Spurs. The easy explanation was to see a German trusting a German and nothing more, but in reality, the the young midfielder looked tailor-made for the system his new manager brought with him, with his physicality in the centre of the pitch helping to form a solid base in the 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-1-1 formations that characterised his first season at Anfield. Can even netted the first goal of the Klopp era against Rubin Kazan in the Europa League, further building the image that he was his boss’ lieutenant on the pitch.
So, Klopp’s first real full test as Liverpool boss – a full campaign on the back of a full pre-season – looked to be one that would see Can step up further and play an even more vital role, but that hasn’t been the case. The club’s progression to a more fluid midfield three in a 4-3-3 with attacking potency over defensive solidity allied to the player’s own late return from Euro 2016 has seen him slip down the pecking order. It’s certain Klopp made the decision to have Jordan Henderson as the pivot in his midfield before Can’s missing of pre-season and following injury lay-off, so the idea must have been to push him further up the pitch into the roles occupied so perfectly by Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana in the opening weeks of the season.
Alas, Can hasn’t looked entirely comfortable in this position, and it’s been notable that some of Liverpool’s worst performances have occurred with a trio of Henderson, Can and Wijnaldum. Granted, there are caveats such as Sadio Mane’s absence and Philippe Coutinho’s injury lay-off, but the slowing down of the play brought about by the 23-year-old German midfielder has been notable: his lack of agility and desire to take an extra touch often clogging up the play in the middle third and slowing the transitions that have been near seamless with Wijnaldum and Lallana as the advanced duo of the three. Can has had his good games – he was Man of the Match in the recent 1-1 draw at Old Trafford (below) – but he seems to have lost his way, and the stats show that he’s now in the midst of his worst season, in a per-game sense, since his 2014 move from Bayer Leverkusen.
It’s interesting that in a campaign in which Liverpool’s stats as a whole have been impressive that Can is at a low point, and even more interesting that his successful passes count-per-game is much lower while the team’s own build-up play has been better than ever – as evidenced by the joint divisional high of 54 goals in 25 games. Starting some matches from the bench and being subbed off by Klopp are of course factors in this count, but this again this backs up the point of view that he’s struggling to fit in with the new way of playing at Anfield, where direct, quick attacks are plentiful and pressing high up the pitch a must. Why else would he be so readily replaced if he was contributing to the play for the better?
There have been highs, of course. He’s showed strings to his bow such as being quite the force when moving at full-flow (which is somewhat strange given that he often takes an age to get going), while he’s also demonstrated he can arrive late into the box to support the attack with goals vs. Crystal Palace, Watford and Bournemouth examples of that. It’s frustrating, then, that player capable of moments such as the back-heel in the build-up to Roberto Firmino’s goal in the famous 4-1 win at the Etihad Stadium and the driving run to set up Divock Origi’s goal away in Dortmund seems unable to find his true role. His sloppiness on the ball remains one of the biggest issues in his game and has only been highlighted further by Wijnaldum’s own clever use of possession, while his failure to really take the Plymouth game at Anfield in the FA Cup – he was one of few senior players chosen – hinted that his current internal struggle is a problem not just for himself, but for the team.
So, what next? It’s already been alleged by Liverpool Echo reporter James Pearce that the player’s future is “up in the air” as he stalls on a new contract, and with Klopp expected to do business this summer, unless the player himself adapts his game or simply improves his form, it’s hard to see the gap between where he is and where he needs to be closing significantly enough to make his manager overlook other options. There remains the possibility of dropping further back into a centre-back role – as per Lucas – or to right-back – where he often plays for Germany – but with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez both emerging, such switches may be seen as ones that will block their development.
In all of this, it must be remembered that Can remains a young player himself. At a glance, he may seem like a footballer in his peak years, but his athletic build and developing footballing brain are at different ends of the spectrum. Yet in Klopp, he has the right manager to nurture his clear talents and a coach that really does appreciate what he can bring to the table when on form. However, it’s a two-way street and Can himself needs to discover the consistency missing in his game and adapt accordingly to the club’s new direction before it’s too late.