“Whatever role he’s asked to play he has this inbuilt brain for football that allows him to adjust and adapt. But when I met him I asked him his preferred position, where he sees himself playing and that was as a controlling midfield player and that’s where I’ve always felt he’ll be an outstanding talent for us” – Brendan Rodgers on Emre Can.
Having arrived on the hour mark in the 1-0 win over Stoke, Can’s introduction brought a degree of calmness to an otherwise frustrating game. Completing 91% of his passes, the German’s solidity released Coutinho’s shackles. Therein lay the key to victory. Given the praise from Rodgers for Can in the build-up to the 1-0 victory over Bournemouth, it was surprising that he did not start the game.
Can’s performance was undoubtedly crucial in the Reds’ first narrow win – and Rodgers deserves credit for that particular substitution – but to leave him on the bench against a side which contained the pacey Max Gradel and two strikers was a risk.
The absence of a defensively minded midfielder was obvious from the offset, with Charlie Daniels picking up the ball in Liverpool’s half with a bizarre amount of space after just two minutes. The full-back had time to cross, earning the game’s first corner. An expectant crowd were quickly silenced by Bournemouth’s intentions – Howe’s men weren’t there to make up the numbers.
King’s willingess to drop into the midfield, along with Andrew Surman and Eunan O’Kane’s positional discipline, meant Bournemouth were succeeding in their game plan of crowding the midfield and nullifying the threat of Jordan Henderson and James Milner. In the first half the pair didn’t quite know whether to attack or defend.
A Can-shaped hole emerged in Liverpool’s midfield. As shown last week, the German provided security to the defence – who were looking shaky every time Bournemouth attacked – giving the Reds a foundation on which to attack.
As a result, Liverpool gained control of the match after adopting a more direct approach to bypass that packed midfield – using Christian Benteke as a target man – but the threat of Bournemouth’s counter-attacking tactics remained. Talk of a defensive midfielder for Liverpool is not a new topic, but Rodgers must surely have been concerned by the way in which Howe’s side found space at both ends of the match.
Having conceded an unfortunate goal (the new offside law seems to be being interpreted as well as the old one), Bournemouth returned after half-time in similar fashion to the opening ten minutes. They almost forced through a couple of openings through their sheer persistence and energy, with Matt Ritchie hitting the post. Benteke also struck woodwork in the latter stages of the game, but there is no doubt Liverpool were hanging on.
Before the game, when asked about Can and Roberto Firmino’s exclusion from the first team, Rodgers replied: “Hopefully those players can make a contribution off the bench.” Fifty minutes played, Can replaced the injured Henderson.
The German immediately occupied the space in between Wilson and King, which had caused Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren some bother, while giving Milner free rein to move forward. A scuffed effort denied Milner a goal within two minutes of Can’s arrival, as a sense of productivity arrived in a previously stagnant Liverpool midfield.
Depsite playing for little over 40 minutes, only two players on the pitch made more tackles than Can – taking him ahead of Francis Coquelin in the tackles table this season. The urge to burst forward is still there (he’s 21, remember), but there is a great deal of potential too.
Last season we saw Arsenal improve towards the latter end of the campaign, with a lot of praise directed towards Coquelin, whose discipline let the creative juices of Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil flow. Can – who said he learned a great deal from Luis Gustavo and Javi Martinez at Bayern Munich – has the potential to become the defensive midfielder that many Liverpool fans crave; whether Rodgers introduces such a role into his system is another matter.
Regardless, the German’s 40-minute cameo was enough to show that he will be required for next week’s trip to Arsenal. With his bite in midfield, the aforementioned Arsenal trio will find it far tougher to explore and expose gaps. No Liverpool supporter would wish injury on their captain, but it saves Brendan Rodgers a dilemma.