They made it hard for themselves, but Liverpool laboured towards a 2-1 victory over Bolton in their FA Cup fourth round replay at the Macron Stadium on Wednesday night.
After Martin Skrtel tripped the energetic Zach Clough in the Reds’ penalty area, and Eidur Gudjohnson converted the resulting penalty kick, it looked as if Liverpool would bow out at the second time of asking and follow Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur into the FA Cup graveyard.
But late goals from Raheem Sterling and the majestic Philippe Coutinho sealed victory for Brendan Rodgers’ side after midfielder Neil Danns saw red after a late tackle on Joe Allen.
Amid questionable in-game tactics and some shoddy Liverpool performances, one player in particular shone through: 21-year-old midfielder Emre Can.
Can’s performance lifted Liverpool to victory, and Rodgers may have found another leader in waiting in the young German.
Limping Towards the Finish Line
Gudjohnson’s penalty was, arguably, a just reward for a Bolton side that ran Liverpool ragged in the first hour of the clash, with several factors contributing to a limp performance from the Reds.
With Lucas Leiva sitting out with a minor injury and Jordan Henderson resting on the substitutes’ bench—with an eye on Saturday’s Merseyside derby—a midfield partnership of Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard was deployed.
The last time the pair had formed Liverpool’s midfield two in the 3-4-2-1 was the 3-0 loss to Manchester United, the first time Rodgers utilised this system.
United won that tie in the midfield and Bolton looked capable of overrunning Liverpool in similar fashion.
Bolton, playing natural centre-back Matt Mills in a centre-forward’s role, opted for a direct style of play, lofting high balls up to Mills and the bright Gudjohnson.
This bypassed Gerrard and Allen and in turn troubled Liverpool’s back three of Can, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, who were stretched by the Trotters’ dual physical presence.
With a gulf between defence and attack, and Bolton looking to apply pressure, Rodgers had to shuffle his pack.
Can as Libero
Though Rodgers made many questionable tactical decisions in the game—namely Gerrard at CM, Henderson at RWB and then Borini at RWB—switching Can into the central defensive role that Skrtel typically occupies changed Liverpool’s fortunes.
Bolton’s direct play continued, and Skrtel’s poor challenge gave away the penalty.
The nerves chimed throughout the Liverpool side, and it took 10 minutes for the Reds to truly regain composure, but when they did Can’s dominance came to the fore.
Can, playing in the central role, thrived in the absence of Danns—the former Leicester City man must have been tearing into the Macron backroom in frustration.
The midfielder was switched once more into a more advanced position, and was able to probe forward with enthusiasm, in full knowledge that Bolton were unable to truly danger the deep-lying Skrtel and Sakho, who effectively operated as a back two on Danns’ dismissal.
Rodgers on Can: "We pushed Emre into midfield so he could control the game from there, and that pushed the other midfielders forward." #LFC
— Jack Lusby (@jacklusby_) February 4, 2015
This, as Rodgers pointed out after the game, allowed Liverpool’s midfielders in Gerrard, Coutinho and Henderson, to push forward even more and test the Bolton defence.
While the likes of Dorian Dervite and David Wheater made a staunch case for the 1-0, it was Can’s class that finally made the difference.
Minutes after hitting the bar with a fine, left-footed effort, Can kept his composure and lofted a precisely weighted ball over the Bolton defence and onto the foot of Sterling, who had timed his run perfectly and glanced the ball between the legs of Andy Lonergan.
Liverpool's equaliser tonight was all about the ball from Emre Can. pic.twitter.com/ytW1MVF0Bx
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 4, 2015
When some of Liverpool’s passenger inclusions looked set to limp to the finish line and a dismal 1-0 loss after such an encouraging run of form Can, along with Coutinho, Sterling and Henderson, gripped the occasion by the scruff of the neck and ensured victory.
Can showed an impressive leadership in this situation, and gave a positive hint at his future at Liverpool.
Emre Can’s Future
Of course, Can has showed great form for the Reds in the right centre-back position in Rodgers’ successful back three.
In the Premier League Can, Skrtel and Sakho have conceded just one goal in five games in this arrangement.
But Rodgers switching the 21-year-old into a central role, and then forward into midfield, showcased just where Can must play for Liverpool in the long-term.
Emre Can made a very significant contribution in those closing phases – moved forward, took charge & great pass for Sterling's goal.
— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) February 4, 2015
Can’s thrust, impetus and all-important composure gave Liverpool the victory, and the leadership he showed at such a young age and in such a crucial position is extremely encouraging.
This was a timely performance, given the increasingly waning ability of Gerrard as a central midfielder for Liverpool, and the club’s imminent loss of their long-serving leader.
Emre Can’s performance in the latter stages of Liverpool’s 2-1 FA Cup victory over Bolton Wanderers showcased just why he must be utilised as a deep-lying, box-to-box midfielder as Rodgers continues to mould his side into a single, hard-working organism.
Can Emre Can become Liverpool’s midfield general in the future? Let us know in the comments below.