Emre Can‘s return to full fitness has seen him re-establish himself as a key player for Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool.
The German made his first start of the season in August’s 5-1 victory over Burton Albion in the League Cup, but didn’t return to Klopp’s starting lineup until almost two months later.
This saw him start for the first time in the Premier League in 2016/17, in the Reds’ 0-0 draw at home to Manchester United on October 17, and he has remained in Klopp’s preferred selection in the English top flight ever since.
While his return could have unsettled the balance within the Liverpool lineup, Can has arguably enhanced it.
After an excellent showing in the 6-1 victory over Watford ahead of the November international break, Can looks to have battled back against the odds to reclaim his key role under Klopp.
Slow Start & Competition
Can was one of Liverpool’s most important players in the previous campaign, with Nathaniel Clyne (4,661) the only outfield player on the field for more minutes than the German (4,215).
This was largely due to Klopp’s appreciation of his quality, with the 49-year-old’s appointment followed by his immediate move from an uncomfortable, ill-fitting role in defence to his natural position in the middle of the park.
Can was central to Liverpool’s surge to the Europa League final, with a virtuoso display against Villarreal in the semi-final second leg helping seal progress to Basel on May 18.
But with his appearance in defeat to Sevilla at St. Jakob-Park swiftly followed by his departure for the European Championship in France with the Germany squad, Can was given little chance to reccuperate over the summer.
A late return to pre-season and a series of ankle injuries saw Can fade into the periphery, with his sporadic appearances in the first two months of the season a result of Klopp’s hesitance to test his fitness.
In the meantime, Georginio Wijnaldum emerged as a vital cog in Klopp’s machine, with his blend of defensive diligence and seamless creativity allowing him to shine in the box-to-box role.
Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson started each of Liverpool’s first seven Premier League games as a three-man unit, striking up a strong understanding, with their roles fluid and interchangable.
Signed for £25 million and hitting a rich vein of form, Wijnaldum looked to have supplanted Can as Klopp’s go-to man alongside his English duo, but now that has switched.
Change in Roles
“I prefer to play and learn from being on the pitch. I am healthy now and fit to play,” Can explained before the Reds took on Watford at Anfield.
“I know I can play the holding role but I can play as the No. 8 as well so it’s not been too difficult.”
Can made 30 of his 49 appearances in 2015/16 as a dedicated defensive midfielder, often alongside Henderson, James Milner or Joe Allen as part of Klopp’s regular 4-2-3-1 formation.
Largely, his role was to break up play using his bullish physicality and aid his side’s movement into the final third through swift incisive passing and forays forward from his deep-lying position.
In clashes such as May’s 3-0 victory at home to Villarreal, Can proved his dominance in the role, serving as a one-man wall between the opposition and the Reds’ back four.
But with Henderson now taking up the mantle as Liverpool’s No. 6, Can’s outlook has been altered.
While against both United and West Bromwich Albion he looked to be taking time to adapt to his new role, often dropping too deep alongside Henderson when he was required to push forward, Can is now thriving.
His ability to cover ground, take players on and play quick one-touch passes around defenders is particularly useful, and his defensive work tracking back is as impressive as Wijnaldum earlier in the season.
He has averaged two successful tackles and 0.7 interceptions per 90 minutes in the league, with Wijnaldum averaging 1.5 successful tackles and one interception.
While Wijnaldum netted his first goal for Liverpool from the substitutes’ bench late on against Watford, Can’s header before half-time was his second in as many games, after an eight-month barren spell largely due to his position at the base of Klopp’s midfield.
Often against the Hornets, Can could be found driving forward on the left wing, clearly embracing the freedom of his new role.
It can certainly be argued that Can has now moved ahead of Wijnaldum in Klopp’s thinking, with the quality in Liverpool’s midfield ranks swelling, and the 22-year-old can now utilise the November international break to further his claim.
Crucial November Break
When Germany manager Joachim Low announced his squad for their World Cup qualifier away to San Marino and their friendly clash against Italy at the San Siro, Klopp will have been pleased to hear of the omission of two of his first-team stars.
Both Can and goalkeeper Loris Karius were left out of Low’s selection, joining Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip, Alberto Moreno and James Milner among those remaining on Merseyside this month.
The presence of three of his four first-choice defenders and his No. 1 goalkeeper will allow Klopp to continue working on Liverpool’s efforts at the back, but with Can staying to train at Melwood, the midfielder is also handed a key opportunity.
Arguably still not at peak fitness, Can can continue to work on his endurance, and the nuances of his new role, ahead of the Reds’ next clash away to Southampton on November 19.
Liverpool are set to play a behind-closed-doors friendly during the break, to give the likes of Joe Gomez and Sheyi Ojo valuable game time after injury—and just as he did during the previous international sojourn, scoring in a 5-0 win over Bradford City, Can will also benefit.
With Wijnaldum on duty as the Netherlands take on Belgium and Luxembourg, and both Henderson and Lallana with the England squad for clashes with Scotland and Spain, Can has been given an advantage.
Contracts talks are ongoing between the club and Can’s agent, with the midfielder keen to commit his future to Liverpool, and continuing to underline his importance will highlight just why this is a positive for the Reds in the long term.