By Andy Wales.
You’d be forgiven for perceiving Emre Can as a veteran of the game. In a career that spans some of European football’s biggest and best clubs, it may be surprising to some that he only turned 26 earlier this year.
Born 12th January 1994 in Stuttgart, he made his mark in the Eintracht Frankfurt academy before moving to Bayern Munich, aged just 15. His opportunities at the Bavarian giants were understandably scarce given the well-established quality of the team they had at the time, and he moved on to Bayer Leverkusen in search of more regular playing time.
Though only with Leverkusen for one year, he quickly impressed with his mix of power, skill and versatility. It prompted Liverpool to exercise his buy-out clause and take him to Anfield in the summer of 2014 for £9.75m. His four-year stay at Liverpool saw him not only showcase his talent and presence in midfield, but also that versatility. At Leverkusen he was often used as a full-back and at Liverpool he was employed in a variety of defensive roles when required.
2018 saw Can move to Juventus as a free agent. A successful first year with the Italian giants was followed by months of frustration as he was excluded from their Champions League squad and was regularly on the bench for domestic matches. This prompted a January move, initially on loan, to Borussia Dortmund.
He had offers to go elsewhere, including the Premier League, but, in what could prove to be the defining transfer of his career, he opted for the Westfalenstadion.
A lack of match fitness was apparent the first few times he pulled on the famous black and yellow, but this was overshadowed by what he brought to the table for Lucien Favre’s team. Until this point, in terms of midfield enforcement, Axel Witsel had largely been left to plough a lonely furrow.
Can’s physical attributes and ball-winning ability immediately lessened Witsel’s workload and added much-needed balance to the side. Dortmund were, and still are, very affluent when attacking and moving the ball quickly.
A glaring weakness in their game was when they were out of possession, particularly in transition. Can has helped plug some of those gaps by not giving opponents as much space to exploit.
With his defensive instincts and physicality, he has helped Dortmund become less susceptible to counter-attacks. Even things as simple as committing well-placed and well-timed tactical fouls have helped deny opponents breaking dangerously. In tandem with Witsel, Can has noticeably improved Dortmund’s defensive record.
In his five Bundesliga appearances, Dortmund kept three consecutive clean sheets, something they had not achieved since the beginning of November. Over these games, they have conceded five goals, though four of those came on Can’s debut against Leverkusen when he was clearly short of match fitness. To add context, Dortmund’s previous five matches saw them concede nine.
For Dortmund, there’s still a greater balance to be found in midfield that gels the solidity of Can and Witsel with the exceptional vision and creativity of Julian Brandt. However, the first step of shoring up the defence has certainly been aided by Can’s arrival.
That being said, to merely concentrate on the defensive side of Can’s game would be unfair. He has long proved he has the ability to both carry the ball into attacking areas and to find incisive passes. He also possesses a goal threat, and although his career games-to-goals ratio is hardly prolific, he is capable of a spectacular strike. His long-range thunderbolt against Leverkusen certainly proved that.
As Can moves into what should be the peak years of his career, it’s arguable that the versatility that helped make him a desirable player to managers has perhaps hindered his development in his favoured position. Rather than be viewed as a specialist central midfielder, he has been used at centre-back and full-back throughout his career.
Of course, consideration must be given to how much can be learned from playing different positions and this is likely to have helped develop certain areas of Can’s game. However, particularly on the international front, that time away from establishing himself as a recognised midfielder allowed others opportunity ahead of him.
Perceived as a utility player, with most of his appearances restricted to full-back, the German national team has yet to see the best of Can.
The early signs of his move to Dortmund and immediate impact should facilitate a change on that front. With many of his more established rivals for a place in the German midfield moving into the autumn of their careers and Can a first-choice starter in the hub of the Dortmund team, perhaps he will finally get the opportunity to transfer his domestic impact to the international stage.