From can't to Can: How Liverpool's young utility man became vital for Rodgers
The ability for both individuals and entire teams to adapt over the course of a season can so often be the difference between success and failure. A reluctance to change has been the demise of many a stubborn manager and player, their dogged pursuit of a singular approach leading to failure and heartache.
Liverpool's recent success over the past few months – one defeat in their last 13 matches in all competitions – has resulted from a willingness to abandon an ineffectual early-season formula.
By moving to a back three and changing the shape of his midfield entirely, Brendan Rodgers has galvanised a team that had lacked identity and rhythm up until Christmas.
It's a change that has seen many of his players forced to take up new roles and responsibilities, and one that seems to make much better use of the talent available to him.
Of all the success stories resulting from this change, it's the impact of Emre Can that stands out. Like the Liverpool team as a whole, Can's form earlier in the campaign was decidedly sporadic, and the German struggled to convince that he was ready to take up a position within Rodgers' midfield.
Undoubtedly, his difficultly in cementing a place in the starting line-up was confounded by Liverpool's general inability to develop a working formation and tactical outlook. Now, however, as part of a back three alongside Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, Can is fast becoming one of the Merseyside outfit's key talents.
Since replacing Kolo Toure at half-time in the 1-0 victory over Burnley in December, Can has been an ever-present in defence.
This increase in playing time has partly come from Toure's Africa Cup of Nations commitments with the Ivory Coast, as well as Dejan Lovren's much maligned form, but the 21-year-old has made the most of his chances in their absence.
It will be incredibly difficult now for Rodgers to consider dropping Can and disrupt the success he has achieved with this back three.
Strength through versatility
The 'versatile' tag can often act as a curse. Players who fall into such a category are consistently thrown into new positions to make up for injuries and weaknesses elsewhere in a starting XI. For Can, however, his versatility is the very reason he is seeing so much success as a defender.
His appearance against Burnley highlights just how important his experience as a midfielder is when it comes to his defensive duties. Against Burnley, 2 of Toure's 3 tackles in the first half came from within Liverpool's penalty area, while all 3 of Can's came alongside the touchline. Can's superior pace allows him to close down attackers much earlier, suffocating potential danger well before it reaches the box.
His passing is also superior. Can completed 76% of his passes against the Clarets; Toure just 63%. It's the nature of those passes that is most telling, however; Can is better at distributing the ball into the central areas that Rodgers likes to exploit as part of his pass-heavy attack.
The one-pronged attack
Can's ability to pick a pass and quickly close down opponents from the right side of Liverpool's defence will be essential in Saturday's Merseyside derby against Everton. It's no secret that Everton have been struggling to find consistent form this season, but Leighton Baines has continued to record the kind of performances at left-back that have made him such a favourite within the blue half of Liverpool.
Baines's 8 assists dwarf his team-mates' numbers – Seamus Coleman, Steven Pienaar and Romelu Lukaku are tied as the next best on 2 apiece. Everton, as demonstrated in their recent win against Crystal Palace, rely on penetration down their left flank, with far more passes and presence recorded there than on the right.
Roberto Martinez's increasing reliance on Baines as creator comes in large part from the inability of his more central players to create opportunities. Steven Naismith took up the No.10 role against Palace, while Ross Barkley was used against West Brom. Neither made much impact, creating 0 chances in the box between them.
Coleman has proved unproductive in comparison to last season, and so if Can can shut down the Baines threat then Everton will be forced to play more centrally. Given the Toffees' misfiring midfield, Liverpool's back three – helped by a marauding Lucas Leiva – should be able to contain the threat.
Henderson's best buddy
Arguably, Can's best game this season was the 1-0 victory over Sunderland in January. Here, it was his eagerness to advance and play the ball forward after winning possession that enabled Liverpool to attack quickly from the back. The young German linked with Jordan Henderson for 36 different passes, the highest total between any two players in the game.
Interesting here is the diversity of positions from which Can is both picking up and passing the ball. Compared to the passes received by Sakho on the opposite side of defence, Can is a more able attacking threat.
By regularly advancing into areas that force the opposition to take note of him, more space is created for team-mates. This will be key to breaking down an Everton defence shielded by Gareth Barry and Muhamed Besic.
In both defence and attack, Can is becoming an increasingly important presence for Rodgers. Needless to say, the defender will play a vital role in this Saturday's derby at Goodison Park.