Harry Kane and Son Heung-min may well receive the plaudits, but it’s summer signing Pierre-Emile Højbjerg who’s chiefly responsible for Spurs’ early-season title push.
Tottenham fans rejoiced when the signing of Sergio Reguilón was announced. That fanfare cranked up tenfold minutes later, as Gareth Bale made his official return and strolled through Enfield’s doors. Heck, even the acquisition of Matt Doherty led Spurs’ social media team to create a well-crafted viral tweet.
By comparison, the transfer of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg transpired with minimal fuss. Many Spurs fans shrugged at the signing, and you’d be hard pressed to find a Southampton supporter who shed a tear over the midfielder’s departure.
Consequently, the word underwhelming springs to mind when thinking back to news of Højbjerg’s N17 arrival. Signed for just £15m — or £3m plus Kyle Walker-Peters, if you prefer — the Dane didn’t have the fans in raptures, didn’t get to play golf with chairman Daniel Levy, or indeed didn’t manage to break the internet.
But while Reguilón adapts to the rigours of Premier League football, Bale continues to regain match fitness, and Doherty struggles for form, it’s been Højbjerg who has flown under the radar to become the lynchpin of José Mourinho’s Tottenham side.
Football fans outside the Spurs bubble would probably have difficulty telling you exactly what the 25-year-old offers: he’s not your classic holding midfielder, nor is he a marauding number eight. In truth, it’s the amalgamation of the two roles that has propelled Højbjerg to prominence.
He has the most touches (885), the most tackles (32), and the most passes (799) of any Spurs player in all competitions this season. He also tops the Premier League’s chart for passes (659) and produced an early contender for assist of the season, teeing up Serge Aurier with a beautifully weighted through ball in Spurs’ 6-1 demolition of Manchester United.
“This shows that there is only one thing we are going for and that is to win every single game we are playing.” Højbjerg told the media in the aftermath of his side’s monumental victory at Old Trafford.
“Of course you need quality and of course you need fit players but for me the character really stands out that we keep going and keep pushing and that is very nice to be part of.”
Højbjerg has predominantly been utilised as one half of a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 by Mourinho this season. Not only has his positional awareness allowed Reguilón and Ben Davies to storm forward from left-back, he’s also exemplified captaincy credentials, encouraging his teammates, demanding the ball at every opportunity, and positively leading by example.
“Pierre is a good player and a good leader,” Mourinho remarked after Spurs’ Europa League match against LASK. “He's a captain without the armband. He's a guy who doesn't need the armband like he had in Southampton to influence other people.”
The midfielder showcased both sides of his game that evening: battling to the point he had to sport a bloodied, Terry Butcher-esque headband, but also performing a sumptuous double pirouette on the edge of his own penalty area before playing his way out of danger.
“We were having a laugh at half time and we were all calling him Zidane,” joked Aurier — a gushing comparison Højbjerg would’ve no doubt been delighted with, given that the Frenchman was his idol growing up.
Complementing his individual skill, the most impressive facet of Højbjerg’s game is his passing. Rather than merely recycling balls sideways and backwards, the Danish international regularly looks forward and picks out his attacking teammates, having played more passes into the final third this season than any other Premier League player.
Højbjerg’s ability in possession was apparent from an early age in Germany. Author Martí Perarnau even recounted in his book, Pep Confidential, how manager at the time Pep Guardiola believed he’d found the “Busquets of Bayern Munich” after watching Højbjerg in training.
Things ultimately didn’t work out for Højbjerg in Bavaria, but he did show glimpses of his unquestionable talent following a move to Southampton, working hard on his fitness and bulking up to become a commanding presence in Saints’ midfield.
Now thriving at Tottenham, Højbjerg appears to have mastered a seamless blend of steel and style. Capable of both shielding defences and supplying quality service to the forward line, he’s starting to dictate the tempo of games and become a sound base for others to build off.
“Højbjerg has completely transformed our midfield, to the point where we already look a little lost without him,” lifelong Spurs fan Liam Heath tells GiveMeSport. “A lot has been made of how many passes he manages per match, showing how central he is to our play right now, but it’s his ball retention that makes him so valuable.
“He breaks up countless attacks and eases the burden on our defence, meaning the ball spends far more time with the other players in front of him who can really hurt opposition teams.”
Sitting second in the table heading into the international break, it remains to be seen whether Spurs can sustain a serious title challenge this season. However, history suggests much of Mourinho’s previous success has been built on the foundation of a solid midfield.
Claude Makélélé and Michael Essien anchored Mourinho’s early Chelsea sides before Nemanja Matić became his bedrock during the coach’s second spell at the club. A combination of Esteban Cambiasso, Dejan Stanković and Thiago Motta marshalled the midfield in Milan, while it was Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Luka Modrić who pulled the strings in Madrid.
In Højbjerg, Mourinho finally has the perfect platform on which to build his Tottenham team. While the star quality of Kane and Son will inevitably continue to win matches and steal headlines, it’s Højbjerg’s ever reliable presence that resides at the epicentre of this Spurs side, something every other player orbits around.
Follow Charlie Carmichael on Twitter @CharlieJC93
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