“Beast mode.” Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s tweet after Tottenham beat Manchester City last month is a fair assessment of his start to life at the north London club.
The midfielder is already becoming something of a cult hero at Spurs for his all-action, blood-and-guts displays and tendency to celebrate tackles like a match-winning goal.
The Denmark international has played a key role in elevating Jose Mourinho’s side to the top of the Premier League table before they head to Anfield to face defending champions Liverpool on Wednesday.
Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy added seven players to their squad during the last transfer window, with the return of Gareth Bale, on loan from Real Madrid, grabbing the headlines, but it is Hojbjerg’s low-key arrival from Southampton that appears to have had the biggest impact.
The 25-year-old has played every minute of his side’s Premier League campaign so far this season, making more tackles, winning possession more times, making more passes and having more touches than any of his team-mates.
“Physically he’s very, very strong and technically he’s much better than people think,” said Mourinho last week, describing the midfielder as “a captain without the armband”.
“Sometimes people think the guy that is good technically is the guy that does the backheel. The guy that is good technically is the guy that does something wonderful. But these are not my words. These are words from coaches of 30, 40 years ago.
“Simplicity is genius. And the guy is so simple in everything he does with the ball.
‘He’s a phenomenal player. Congratulations, Mr Levy.”
The future coach who is a ‘pain’?
Mourinho made no secret of his desire to bring in a ball-winning midfield general last summer and in Hojbjerg he seems to have added exactly that, and much more.
Tottenham have the best defensive record in the division and have only conceded two goals in their past seven games, with Hojbjerg and midfielder partner Moussa Sissoko providing a vital screen for the back four – at times playing more like a back six.
“He’s had a fantastic impact on the team, on and off the pitch, very professional,” Eric Dier, who has occupied a place at centre-back since Hojbjerg’s arrival, told BBC Sport.
“He’s a great example to follow off the pitch and on the pitch, he has so much quality with and without the ball.
“He’s brought a lot of character and a lot of strength to that position. The same goes for Moussa – the two of them do a fantastic job in making everyone else’s job easier.”
Hojbjerg has made 35 tackles this season, the fifth-most of any Premier League player, and is among the six players to have won possession for their sides the most, doing so on 89 occasions.
“Pierre is very intelligent – he reads the game very well, he understands the game very well,” added Mourinho. “He is going to be a coach one day, for sure. He is a pain, always asking questions why we do this and that.
“On the pitch he reads the situation very, very well and the people that surround him are really compact and they read the game.”
Hojbjerg the architect?
It is perhaps unsurprising that a player mentored by Pep Guardiola as a teenager knows how to use the ball efficiently.
This is a midfielder who joined Bayern Munich at 16, became the youngest player to feature for the German champions in the Bundesliga, aged 17 years and 251 days, and was handed further first-team opportunities by Guardiola during his three-year spell at the club.
In the book Pep Confidential, author Marti Perarnau says the now Manchester City boss “fell in love” with Hojbjerg after a couple of training sessions because he “reads the game brilliantly and has an astonishing ability to break through five players with a single pass”, adding that Guardiola felt he had found the “[Sergio] Busquets of Bayern”.
At Tottenham this season, Hojbjerg has been involved in nine sequences in open play that have led to his side scoring a goal – three more than any other player in the division – setting the platform for the likes of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min to flourish.
Hojbjerg has exerted his control over the midfield not just through his tackling and ball-winning, but by making more passes (870) than anyone in the Premier League bar Manchester City’s Rodri (901).
Some 443 of those have come in the opposition half – the sixth-most of any player – while the Tottenham man has enjoyed the third-most touches (1,027) this season in the English top flight. Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson (1,187) and Leeds United defender Luke Ayling (1,105) are the only players to have had more.
Analysis by Carteret Analytics, who rate and value a player’s contribution to their team, says Hojbjerg is Spurs’ best midfielder in terms of controlling a game.
Their research indicates he is “particularly effective at creating positive outcomes from match-play transitions (from defence to attack) and is excellent at controlling the game to preserve an in-match position and increase the probability of an optimal match result”.
They say these attributes are particularly effective in “counter-attacking play and preserving a match-leading position”.
‘A big part in Spurs’ transformation’
Hojbjerg spent four seasons at Southampton, captaining the Saints before publicly revealing his desire to leave at the end of last season.
It is not the first time he has taken an unpopular route to forge what he believes is the best path for his career – leaving Copenhagen for rivals Brondby as a 14-year-old, in part because he did not want to play as a striker, and moving to Germany three years later.
His transfer to Tottenham was met with scepticism by some Spurs fans because it saw academy product Kyle Walker-Peters heading in the other direction.
Former Premier League goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer says he is surprised at the huge influence the Dane has had.
“Hojbjerg has definitely played a big part in Spurs’ transformation,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live. “He has a control in the midfield and gives the back four more protection.
“He covers his position in front of the back four well, he reads the game well. He’s one of those players that I think you really understand what a difference he makes when he’s in your own team, when you play alongside him.”
Hojbjerg’s role has evolved under Mourinho, creating fewer chances on average than in his time at St Mary’s – 0.4 per game compared to 0.9 – but increasing his defensive influence and registering more passes.
He has made 2.9 tackles per game for Spurs in the Premier League this season, compared to 2.5 on average with Southampton, while his average number of passes per game has risen from 60.7 to 72.5 and his passing accuracy from 82.71% to 88.85%.
“We’re starting to get more of an insight into him now at Spurs,” added Schwarzer. “At Southampton he went under the radar a bit so I’m surprised how well he’s done this season.”