Dissecting Liverpool’s Emre Can contract stand-off

Reports from various reliable outlets in recent days have suggested that Liverpool are increasingly resigned to the prospect of losing Emre Can on a free transfer upon the expiry of his contract next summer. Negotiations have dragged on for months on end but appear to have now reached an impasse whereby the German’s departure looks like an inevitability unless there is a drastic change in circumstances very soon.

The sticking point seems to have centred not around Can’s wage demands, but on his insistence on the inclusion of a release clause in a new contract, to which Liverpool have refused to back down. The situation now leaves Can free to open talks for a pre-contract agreement with other clubs in January to secure his future ahead of the summer in which he will no doubt hope to play a major part for Germany at the World Cup.

The situation is clearly far from ideal from Liverpool’s perspective, although it is arguably a product of a summer transfer window in which several high profile players- none more so than Philippe Coutinho- were prevented from securing big-money moves elsewhere and held to the terms of their current contracts.

In doing so, Liverpool kept hold of a key asset for another season, with Coutinho’s form prior to his recent injury suggesting he will continue to be a hugely important player for Jürgen Klopp for the time being. The fallout from this transfer saga- and others, including that of Virgil van Dijk and Alexis Sanchez- means that other players are more likely to demand release clauses when signing future contracts to avoid finding themselves in similar scenarios.

It’s a very difficult one for Liverpool to manage. On the one hand, losing Can for nothing will be a heavy blow given his current market worth is probably in the region of £40-50 million. After years of inconsistency and development from the raw talent Liverpool paid £9.8 million to sign from Bayer Leverkusen in 2014, Can has finally begun to fulfil his vast potential as a supremely gifted midfielder.

To see him leave Liverpool just as he enters his prime years, playing his best football elsewhere, effectively undermines FSG’s entire philosophy of unearthing talented young players on the cheap before developing them into the finished article. Can is not yet the finished article, of course, but having put all the graft into his development up until now, it would be a great shame to see him reach his peak level at another club.

It’s difficult to know quite how good Can could become, as he still has a tendency to fluctuate quite considerably in his performance level- although 2017 has been by far his most consistent year so far. On an off day, he can be hugely frustrating with his lack of positional discipline, rash tackling and tendency to take too much time on the ball.

At his very best, however, you can see how he might one day become one of Europe’s very best in his position. His ability to drive past opponents on the ball with a rare balance of physical strength and elegant technique, along with his penchant for long-range strikes and impressive passing vision make him a fearsome prospect to behold.

Some would argue that he doesn’t perform at this level often enough to warrant a regular place in the Liverpool side, although at 23 it’s easy to forget how much time he still has to improve and perform consistently. Indeed, it was Can who regularly stepped up and delivered crucial performances in the second half of last season to help drag Liverpool across the line to a top-four finish, while his contributions in the play-off tie against Hoffenheim this season were pivotal in securing a return to the Champions League.

The problem Liverpool have, however, is that granting Can his wish of a release clause would set a dangerous precedent for future contract negotiations. By giving him an easy exit route, the likes of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah could be justified in requesting likewise when they begin new contract talks. You might be able to keep Can for another season or two, but the knock-on effect of institutionalizing release clauses is not something Liverpool can afford to do for the sake of keeping one player. Of course, in theory the release clause could be set at an astronomical price- but the likelihood of the player actually agreeing to that would be slim.

There’s also the question of whether you really want to keep hold of a player who is so keen to have a release clause in their contract, as it hardly indicates a steadfast commitment to Liverpool’s long-term ambitions, which, ultimately, is what Klopp is there for. He’ll want players who actively want to be a part of what he’s building- not just to use Liverpool as a convenient bridge to their next career step.

From the player’s perspective, it’s perhaps even more difficult to analyse. If wages aren’t the issue- as reported- it seems unlikely that game time is the main factor, either, as Can is almost always a nailed on starter for Klopp when fit and available. Whether he might want further assurances with the impending arrival of Naby Keita on the horizon, is a possibility, but given his ability you would expect he’d be prepared to fight and keep hold of his place in the midfield. He also seems to have a good relationship with Klopp and you could rarely ever question Can’s commitment on the pitch for Liverpool.

The possible clubs mentioned as suitors- the likes of Juventus, Bayern Munich, Man City and Borussia Dortmund- reflect how highly he’s thought of by the continent’s elite teams, but the question around a guaranteed starting spot seems even more complex at these clubs where the competition is likely to be even more extreme than at Liverpool (less so in Dortmund’s case).

Of course, it may well be a case of feeling he has more chance of winning silverware elsewhere, but Can is hardly at the level of Fernando Torres or Luis Suarez who were quite clearly the best players at the club and could justifiably argue they deserved to be playing for one of the very best sides in the world. Can still has a long way to go until he reaches that status and at present, I would argue he’s not even in Liverpool’s top five players.

If Liverpool do manage a highly successful season (i.e. another top-four finish, progression to the Champions League knockout stages and perhaps winning the FA Cup), Can could still have a change of heart. At present, though, it looks unlikely and it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Liverpool fans will massively regret seeing him play elsewhere in the future.

Whether negotiations could have been handled differently to avoid reaching this stage is difficult to assess. It seems as though the club are very keen for him to sign, but not at the expense of their principles, while Can doesn’t appear to be actively pushing for a move- but is more than happy to move on if he isn’t offered the release clause he desires.

It’s a frustrating and unfortunate situation, but a case where Liverpool standing their ground at the cost of losing one talented individual might well be the only option. The arrival of Naby Keita means Liverpool already have a genuine top-class midfielder secured, although the likelihood of Coutinho also leaving means the midfield will need further surgery next summer- perhaps with the addition of Schalke’s Leon Goretzka who has been touted by many as an ideal replacement for Can.

For the time being, Can remains an important player for Liverpool’s aspirations this season and any suggestions that he should be “phased out” given his likely departure are misplaced. He can still play a crucial role for Klopp until next summer and while his likely departure will be a considerable blow to take, Liverpool cannot simply bow down to his requests and must safeguard their position for future negotiations.

It’s a messy and unfortunate situation- and from a personal perspective it would be a huge disappointment to see Can leave next summer- but one which is ultimately bigger than any one individual.







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