Opinion: Can Liverpool find midfield balance without Emre Can?

Opinion: Can Liverpool find midfield balance without Emre Can?

With Emre Can's continued absence, is the current Liverpool midfield three balanced enough to succeed this season or are Liverpool missing the German?

Andy Jones

So far this season Liverpool have played four competitive games. They have scored ten goals and conceded six goals. Jürgen Klopp's side have shown more attacking prowess compared to last season mainly thanks to the addition of Sadio Mane, but they are still suffering defensive problems.

There are a number of reasons behind the problem that has plagued Liverpool for a number of years, but one of them is the lack of balance that Liverpool seem to have in the middle of the park.

The midfield three of Adam LallanaGeorginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson have thus far struggled to convince anyone that they can consistently be Liverpool's central three this season, but with Emre Can edging his way back to fitness, time is running out for the three players to prove they deserve a place in the Liverpool side.

The closure of the transfer window also brought an end to the talk of what Liverpool should do in the market. Many opinions were offered about where Liverpool needed to strengthen but it was generally agreed that a left back and at least one central midfielder, a holding one mainly, was of priority. Instead Liverpool didn't add either and decided what they had was good enough already.

Klopp and co. enter the season now with seven, potentially eight "first-team" central midfield players (James Milner being number eight). So far this season in the Premier League, the German boss has lined up with a three of Lallana, Wijnaldum and captain Henderson whilst Can, Lucas Leiva, Kevin Stewart and Marko Grujic have yet to be heavily involved for various reasons.

The likes of Cameron Brannagan will also be looking to push themselves into the first-team picture this season. So far the current midfield has provided mixed results with the trio struggling for consistency across a 90-minute match.

Reds' midfield - what's gone wrong so far?

In all three Premier League matches thus far this season, Liverpool have failed to control a match in the centre of the park. Against Arsenal, the midfield was non-existent in the first half and despite the blistering start in the second half with a blitz of goals, it was the influence of Emre Can off the bench which helped Liverpool see out the game.

Against Burnley, the possession stat showed that Liverpool dominated with 81 per-cent. But were Liverpool's midfield really in control of the game? Yes they had lots of the ball but they didn't exactly dictate the play. Burnley weren't panicking as Liverpool tried to pull the strings. Instead, the newly-promoted Clarets sat deep and allowed Liverpool to pass the ball aimlessly across the pitch before somebody had a harmless long-range attempt on goal.

The Tottenham Hotspur game was again a game where Liverpool were effective with the ball but one of the keys to winning a game is when ahead, to have the ability to retain possession to ease the pressure. Liverpool weren't able to do that and as a result allowed Tottenham to create chances and have more possession, which allowed them to earn a point.

Lallana has been the most impressive of Liverpool's midfield three so far. (Picture: Getty Images)
Lallana has been the most impressive of Liverpool's midfield three so far. (Picture: Getty Images)

Lallana has made the move backwards from his role last season. Operating mainly on the right side of a three behind the striker, Lallana has moved deeper with Klopp's switch from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3. His move into the role has appeared seamless with the continuation of his own pressing game still a massive influence in the Liverpool team as well as more time on the ball to get the Reds moving forwards.

Instead of finding himself in unfriendly tight spaces around the opposition's box, Lallana has been arriving from a deeper position and just like with his goal at the Emirates, is an additional threat to Liverpool's attacking ranks. But he isn't someone who can necessarily pick a pass out that would send Mane or Sturridge in behind the defence and still does his main work in and around the area.

Wijnaldum has yet to make an impact from deeper midfield. (Picture: Getty Images)
Wijnaldum has yet to make an impact from deeper midfield. (Picture: Getty Images)

Otherwise, Wijnaldum was an expensive addition to the Liverpool midfield this summer. The Holland international was signed from Newcastle for £25 million and has so far made up the second part of the three in midfield. Playing on the left side of the three he has yet to fully convince many Liverpool fans that he is what Liverpool needed when it came to improving the centre of the midfield.

Too many times in the opening fixtures has Wijnaldum disappeared from games or not quite looked up to the pace of the game. The first game of the season at Arsenal being prime example as in the first half he looked completely lost and was bullied by the Arsenal midfield, although he did step up his game in the second half. He appears and influences games every now and again but is that really enough? It shouldn't be, at least.

Is Emre Can the answer?

Of course, the whole complexion of Liverpool's midfield changes however with the introduction of Emre Can. The German is the best player at the club at sitting at the base of a three-man midfield due to his defensive awareness and qualities, coupled with him being comfortable and effective in possession.

The effect that Can will and does have on the midfield was clear when he started his first game of the season away to Burton Albion. Granted the opposition weren't anywhere near Premier League quality on the night, but the base Emre Can provided in the middle of the park was something that had been missing in the first couple of games of the season.

Liverpool can no longer bring any players into the club so Klopp will be working with what he has got. The likes of Lucas, Stewart and Grujic would give Liverpool something different but with Can you get more. Stewart and Lucas both give you that defensive protection but don't really get Liverpool moving forward whilst Grujic needs to be eased into the his new league. Can gives you both.

Henderson has been filling in that position due to Can's absence but it is clear that this role isn't suited for him. The Liverpool captain is at his best when relieved of a lot of his defensive duties allowing him to make runs from deep and get involved in attacking areas. The second goal against Burnley when he failed to deliver any significant defensive cover as Burnley broke away showed that his place is further up the pitch.

Liverpool have looked like an attacking force this season with the three midfielders heavily involved in their counter-attacking strategy. Of the three central midfielders that have started all three Premier League games, there has been an apparent problem that they are all a bit too much alike.

All of them are willing pressers of the ball and all of them love to play on the front foot. At the same time they all struggle defensively; Liverpool have failed to keep a clean sheet in the league this season. Their only clean sheet of the campaign came in the EFL Cup game against Burton, in which Can did play.

Can is much more adept at the holding midfield role than Henderson. (Picture: Getty Images)
Can is much more adept at the holding midfield role than Henderson. (Picture: Getty Images)

What this midfield does bring you however is the possibility of goals. Liverpool didn't have bags of possession against Tottenham but when they got the ball they used it effectively. Wijnaldum and Lallana link up well when pushing forward, shown by the goal against Arsenal, but for too many periods in games they appear to go missing and as a result it allows teams to come back into games.

However, none of the three are great at opening up a defence. All can play and are dangerous around the area but aren't accomplished at finding the killer ball. Neither is Can for that matter and as well as that holding midfielder, the deep-lying playmaker Liverpool arguably need was not forthcoming in the transfer window either.

It's still early days with for the midfield though and with Klopp's attention to detail on the training pitch he will have ample time to address issues. The ruling out of Can against Leicester provides the Liverpool midfield to again try and convince that they are good enough to play in a three and Liverpool won't miss Can.

Away games always prove to be difficult to control because the home team like to play on the front foot. Therefore it is understandable that Liverpool haven't commanded the midfield especially against the top teams like Arsenal and Tottenham.

Saturday's test against Leicester at home will provide a huge amount of knowledge as to whether the three midfielders are good enough. That need to keep control. They need to keep a clean sheet.

Rock and roll football isn't always about balance. But sometimes balance is needed to win.