Hojbjerg is Mourinho’s ‘captain without the armband’
Whether playing in a small-sided game in training or a Premier League match at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, what has struck the Spurs players most about Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is his intensity.
Since joining in August from Southampton, Hojbjerg has made a big impression at the club. He takes his profession very seriously, viewing it as a craft, and training operates with the same no-nonsense commitment that has endeared him to Tottenham’s supporters straightaway. “He is one of the most serious players I’ve ever seen,” says one dressing-room source. “Unbelievably serious, no wonder he was made captain of Southampton (at 23) — he is a leader and a hard worker and the type of player that Jose loves.”
Although he has a lighter side, Hojbjerg possesses a focus and dedication that can appear relentless. Training and match days are his workplace. At Southampton, he was renowned for his drive and was often the last to leave the training centre. Now at Hotspur Way, he is showing the same application, which has gone down extremely well with the Spurs coaches. “For Mourinho, it’s very important the way you train and motivate the other players,” as one source puts it.
Sunday’s 2-1 win over Brighton & Hove Albion showcased Hojbjerg’s determination and underlined why he is well on the way to becoming a fan favourite — a position already helped by his unquestionable commitment. The sort of commitment that saw him wearing a Terry Butcher-style head bandage against LASK Linz in the Europa League after a clash that left him needing stitches. Or that led to him confronting some of the Royal Antwerp players after Spurs’ 1-0 Europa League loss last week.
(Photo: Richard Calver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Against Brighton, Hojbjerg lost the ball in the build-up to their equaliser but it looked as though he was fouled rather than tackled cleanly. His furious reaction to Solly March’s challenge was what Jose Mourinho and the supporters wanted to see. In general, Hojbjerg is the paradigm for the sort of “intelligent c***” that Mourinho is after and that has often been lacking from the Spurs dressing room.
He has become one of the players the head coach cannot do without. Do you know how many minutes of Premier League action Hojbjerg has missed this season? Zero. It’s something no other outfield player in the Tottenham squad can say, and in all competitions, Hojbjerg has played more minutes than any other Tottenham player.
Watching Hojbjerg in person, it’s easy to see why he has so quickly become indispensable. It is his leadership that stands out as much as his technical ability, which was also very much in evidence on Sunday (more on that later).
Beginning with his influence on the rest of the team, the way he communicates with his team-mates is extremely impressive. “Born leader,” was a term The Athletic heard again and again when speaking to people to learn more about Hojbjerg in the summer, and it’s a view shared by those at Spurs as well.
“He’s a captain without needing to wear the armband,” Mourinho explained last month. Or as the actual captain Hugo Lloris said in Sunday’s match-day programme: “He has had a big impact because of his personality… he is pushing us.”
Hojbjerg was certainly pushing the team against Brighton. In the early stages, he played a pass out wide to Sergio Reguilon and then admonished him for not playing the ball back. On multiple occasions, he yelled at his team-mates, “Keep the line”, and was not afraid to dish it out to the team’s talisman Harry Kane either. “Come back, Harry,” he screamed when Brighton’s goalkeeper Robert Sanchez was lining up a free kick.
In the next breath, he told Tanguy Ndombele to “turn around”, before telling the Frenchman to press later in the half. It’s fair to say Hojbjerg dished out quite a lot of advice to Ndombele during the game.
It wasn’t just his words that illustrated how quickly Hojbjerg has settled into a leadership role at Spurs. He leads through his deeds as well, at one point sprinting to try to prevent a Brighton corner even though he had little chance of getting the ball. He also carried on in the second half despite painfully rolling his ankle.
But Hojbjerg is so much more than a stereotypical ranter and raver. He is allowed to constantly chirp at his team-mates because they respect his footballing ability. “Pierre was again a very important man in there. He gave us that strength and stability,” Mourinho told The Athletic after the Brighton game when reflecting on Hojbjerg’s performance.
It was a performance that demonstrated what he offers on and off the ball. Hojbjerg made the most passes of any Tottenham player and had the highest pass completion rate, and none of his team-mates made more interceptions or won the ball back more frequently.
This side had lacked a ball-winning midfielder of his type but don’t get the impression that Hojbjerg is a safe sideways passer. One of the elements of his game that has stood out is his progressive passing, demonstrated yesterday his match-high amount of passes in the opposition half, including an excellent probing, purposeful stab to Erik Lamela to start the move that led to the penalty. It’s worth remembering that Hojbjerg sees himself primarily as a passer, who only added his excellent ability to break up play later in his career. “(My best position) is about what type of match it is,” he said last year. “If it’s an open match, I’d say No 8. If it’s more closed, I like to move back and set up the play.”
Dictating the play from further back was something Hojbjerg did a lot of on Sunday, often dropping into the space between the two centre-backs to collect the ball and try to start Spurs attacks. He was also tasked with breaking up Brighton’s forays forward, explaining why he won the ball so often and, typically, giving a foul away at one point. Only three players in the Premier League have conceded more fouls this season than Hojbjerg’s 14 (Tomas Soucek, 19, Trezeguet, 17, and Paul Pogba, 15).
He would give away more were it not for the fact that he possesses such good anticipation. It’s striking to watch him up close and see the trigger moment when Hojbjerg anticipates the ball entering the space within which he can win the ball. He will then invariably dart forwards or sideways to try to retrieve it.
As with the rest of the Spurs side, we will get more of a sense of his level during the run of games after the international break when Spurs face four of the other so-called “big six” clubs in the space of five league matches. Especially as Hojbjerg, like the whole team, suffered on the opening weekend in the 1-0 defeat against the early-season pace-setters Everton.
But generally, the signs so far have been very promising, and the former Bayern Munich midfielder won’t be overawed by the more high-profile occasions. In fact, you get the sense he will relish them.
“Don’t drop, don’t drop,” Hojbjerg yelled in the closing stages of Sunday’s game. His team-mates listened, holding firm and digging out a win that moves them up to second place behind Liverpool.
A very articulate and thoughtful individual, when Hojbjerg speaks, people tend to listen.