Emre Can had just been asked about his future plans, and he didn’t appear altogether happy about it. “Why do you ask me this?” was his immediate retort.
In just six words, the German had given Liverpool fans genuine reason for concern. Out of the contract at the end of the season, it’s rarely a good sign in these situations when a player seems so reluctant to talk about committing to a new deal.
That was a few short days ago. In the 5-1 win at Brighton, Can showed exactly why Liverpool want him to stay, and why they need him to stay.
Versatility is crucial
When Jurgen Klopp was devising his line-up to face the Seagulls, it was clear he had a problem. No Joel Matip because of injury, and replacement centre back Ragnar Klavan not fit enough to start because of illness. Another potential central defensive option, Joe Gomez, was also ill. “We had big problems,” Klopp admitted after the game. “All of them were centre halves and it made life really difficult. We had to make a big decision.”
So what did he do? Klopp opted to drop Can back to central defence, a position in which he has not played for some time. He often featured in defence during his first season with the club under Brendan Rodgers , but Klopp has always preferred him in midfield. He didn’t let anyone down at the Amex – Liverpool surprisingly switched to three at the back, also dropping Gini Wijnaldum into defence. While the Dutchman often looked uncomfortable in his new role, particularly in the first half, Can was relatively unruffled.
He combined his deeper role and passing skills to start the play in confident fashion, spraying a lovely diagonal pass to wing back Andrew Robertson on one occasion, and helped Liverpool defend relatively well – certainly much better than they have done on some other occasions this season.
Can then provided the match’s decisive moment – thumping home a superb header from a corner to put the Reds in front on the half hour mark. In an instant, a cagey fixture was transformed into one in which Liverpool’s front line could run riot, against a Brighton side suddenly forced to chase the game.
Every club needs players with Can’s type of all-round ability, able to adapt when the circumstances require it. Without him, Klopp’s team selection against Brighton would have been a whole lot more difficult. The outcome at the Amex might have been very different.
Peak is still to come
Watching Emre Can play, it is sometimes hard to believe that his squad number of 23 also matches his age. The German doesn’t look 23, and he doesn’t play like a 23-year-old either.
His maturity and general calmness, bar the odd iffy moment, gives the impression of someone who is closer to 30 – largely because he’s already got more than 200 club games under his belt, plus 20 caps for Germany.
Can hasn’t reached his peak yet, that is still to come – probably during his next contract. He was once tipped as a future captain, too, by Colin Pascoe, Liverpool’s assistant manager during Can’s first year at the club. Whether captain or not – current skipper Jordan Henderson is only 27 himself – Liverpool will want Can’s peak years to be at Anfield.
Losing him for nothing in the summer would be an even bigger loss, given that he was signed for just £9.75m from Bayer Leverkusen in 2014, and is now valued at around £31m – the fee Juventus were reportedly ready to offer a few months ago.
Better if it was about money
Turin appears to be Can’s most likely destination if he does depart Liverpool – Germany’s general manager Oliver Bierhoff recently said there was a ’60 to 80 per cent chance’ that the Frankfurt-born star would end up at Juventus. It seemed a little odd that Germany’s general manager was even commenting on the subject, but his words were probably telling.
That Juventus are interested also tells you everything you need to know about the player’s quality – they haven’t signed too many bad players over the last few years.
To be fair to Can, after initially seeming reluctant to talk about his future a few days ago, he did answer the question – but only to indicate that his options remain open. “We’ll see,” he added, after stressing that it was ‘not about money’.
Normally that would be a good thing, but in this case, it would probably be better for Liverpool if it was about money – that his hesitation over signing a new contract was simply a negotiating tactic. In that situation, Liverpool could raise their offer and seal a deal.
With Juventus interested, the little that Can did say about the subject suggests maybe the desire for league titles and regular trophies is uppermost in his mind. “We’ll see,” may refer to what he sees from Liverpool for the rest of the season – and what he thinks is possible at Anfield in the years to come. With Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea above them in the Premier League table right now, that might be a harder situation for the Reds to control than simply offering a higher salary.
If Can did depart, he is more than capable of flourishing as a possible successor to Sami Khedira, and becoming a star for both Juventus and Germany in the years to come. No-one at Liverpool will want that: somehow, they need to persuade him to stay.
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