In many ways, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg feels symbolic of the Tottenham Hotspur Ange Postecoglou has left behind.
An automatic starter under Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho — no-one at Spurs played more league minutes than Hojbjerg in the previous three seasons — and someone who was broadly good without ever really looking like he would elevate the team beyond top-four hopefuls. He tended to divide supporters — some buying into his committed ‘Viking’ image, others frustrated at his technical deficiencies and wondering how tough he really was. Hojbjerg was also generally very close to both Conte and Mourinho; some at the club felt in a borderline sycophantic way, which was not the best association to have in the eyes of most supporters.
Under Postecoglou, in contrast, Hojbjerg has been removed from the leadership group and gone from starter to substitute. And this after a summer when Spurs and Hojberg would have been happy for a parting of the ways if the right offer had come in.
All of this made his first league start of the season on Monday night intriguing. Especially as it was against Fulham, one of the clubs who tried to sign him recently. And especially as the man he was replacing, the suspended Yves Bissouma — a symbol not of Spurs’ past like Hojbjerg but of their exciting present and future — has been so good this season.
So could the 28-year-old, the player who has been so divisive but generally undroppable over the last few years still have a role to play under Postecoglou?
On the basis of his performances in Monday’s 2-0 win and off the bench so far this season, Hojbjerg looks like he can still be an effective option, someone who can be relied upon when needed but who is unlikely to really trouble Bissouma for a starting berth. Hojbjerg made some important contributions against Fulham — winning possession in their half in the lead-up to both Spurs goals, and playing some very useful passes — including an excellent switch of play to Richarlison in the second half. On the debit side was a booking for a late tackle on Willian — though Bissouma is hardly immune to this either — and some hurried passes when more composure was needed. It’s here that the gap looks most stark; there was a moment shortly after half-time in particular where Hojberg hacked the ball clear which contrasted so obviously with Bissouma’s calm.
And this is Hojbjerg’s problem: Bissouma has been so sensational this season that almost any player would be a step down.
It’s certainly the case with Hojberg, as this chart demonstrates (Hojbjerg’s stats from last season are used as he has not played enough this season):
The chart uses data from smarterscout, which measures an individual’s ability in specific metrics out of 99 relative to other players in their position. It shows Bissouma is excelling both in the defensive and offensive sides of the game. xG from shot creation shows how much a player’s actions contribute to creating scoring chances for their team; a player gets credited for their contributions in relation to taking shots, creating chances, making the pass before the chance, and so on.
For carry and dribble volume the higher the number, the more carries of 10 or more metres or one-on-one dribbles a player attempts per attacking touch. Defending intensity shows how often the player is the most relevant defender when his side are out of possession. The higher the number, the more it shows the player to be actively applying pressure and making defensive actions.
It’s early days and Bissouma may not be able to sustain his early season form. He is also likely to pick up more suspensions.
But assuming he remains Postecoglou’s first-choice No 6, where does that leave Hojbjerg? How happy will a player so used to being an automatic starter at Spurs — and previous club Southampton — be with his new role of useful squad player?
The consensus from those in his native Denmark is this will not suit Hojbjerg for long.
“He is a guy who needs to feel important to get the best out of him,” says Poul Ferdinand, a freelance journalist in Denmark who has covered the national team for 15 years. “He thrives on being in a leadership group. It’s hard for anyone, but especially for someone like him to be a fringe player.”
While Hojbjerg may not be happy, he has been nothing but professional this season, applying himself with complete commitment in training and in games when he’s come on, making useful contributions. He helped shore up the side against Manchester United and Bournemouth, and played a big part in Dejan Kulusevski’s late winner against Sheffield United.
It would have been easy for Hojbjerg to sulk after losing his place and missing out on a move in the summer — and in general his colleagues have been pleasantly surprised by his reaction to his reduced status. Remember Hojbjerg didn’t even make the bench for the final game of last season away at Leeds after interim head coach Ryan Mason had said on the eve of the match: “I’ve made it very clear that if anyone isn’t up for the fight and they don’t want to play in this type of game then it’s probably best we don’t play with them.”
Yet despite Hojbjerg’s understandable disappointment at his lack of minutes, Postecoglou has found a way to keep getting good performances from him, praising him on Monday for his “excellent” display against Fulham and contributions throughout the season.
Hojbjerg would be open to a move in January, but Spurs, like in the summer, would only sell if a good offer came in and they could bring in a replacement. Both of those things happening seems unlikely, and Spurs will be even more reluctant to sell Hojbjerg then given both Bissouma and Pape Matar Sarr will be away at the Africa Cup of Nations.
That should provide the Dane with an opportunity and, even if he’s no longer a regular starter, Monday was a reminder he still has a useful role to play if Spurs are to maintain their table-topping form.
The challenge, which Postecoglou has managed well so far, will be keeping fringe players like Hojbjerg hungry and motivated.
(Photo: Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)