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How Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg would benefit Tottenham Hotspur’s midfield

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Southampton’s Danish #23 (!!) has been heavily linked to plug the massive defensive gap in the midfield.

Southampton v Tottenham Hotspur - FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images

Unless marked otherwise, all statistical data provided by Wyscout.

The departure of Moussa Dembele in the January transfer window of the 18/19 season was a sad yet completely expected development for Tottenham fans. Sentimentality aside , it exposed Spurs midfield as quite lackluster. Its hard to separate the general form of the squad, which has been below average for about a year and some months, to the ability of each individual player. Moussa Sissoko, Harry Winks, and Eric Dier are all fine players that would have little trouble slotting into most Premier League sides, to say nothing of Tanguy Ndombele who I still believe has world class talent ready to be unearthed.

Even taking a step back to see the long term view, Spurs had a fairly viable succession plan in place, with the likes of Winks and Oliver Skipp coming through the youth ranks to add energy and a sense of longevity into the midfield. Dembele’s unique ability was to offer well rounded performances consistently with a high dribble success rate, quickly transition the ball from defensive to attacking action, and a physicality that allowed him to bully players on and off the ball.

Through the end of the 18/19 season, and the start of the 19/20 season, Spurs’ midfield performances have shown that something else is needed. Ndombele is the likeliest player to truly become an x factor in the middle of the pitch, yet his lack of defensive contribution has been well documented and contributed to his slow start at Spurs. Combined with deteriorating performances from the Belgian duo at the back, defensively the team has been frail.

So far in the 19/20 season, Tottenham have face the 5th most shots against, 395. On average, the teams in the Top 4 have faced ~240.

Additionally, Spurs have 6th highest expected goals against (xGA) at 47.42. The only teams that are expected to be scored against more than Spurs are in 13th place or lower in the Premier League table.

Spurs have been linked heavily with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg from Southampton to presumably help overcome defensive weaknesses. Its important to say what type of play Hojbjerg is not — should he make his way to North London, Spurs fans should not expect a Sandro/Wanyama player, someone who is a destroyer with minimal passing capability. He offers a lot going forward, but he’ll shine at Spurs by helping reinforce the back line.

Hojbjerg has picked up more interceptions and completed more tackles than Dier, Ndombele, and Winks. Dier is typically asked to slot in as an centerback in the defensive phase so its not surprising that he has the highest amount of clearances or blocked shots.

By far the most athletic of Tottenham’s midfielders is Sissoko, which makes him a perfect option to cover the space that Aurier leaves behind during a transition in play. However, Dier is the closest thing that Spurs have to a patrolling defensive midfielder, but he either lacks the ability to anticipate where the opposition might attack, or lacks the athleticism to position himself correctly.

Hojbjerg possesses both the ability to foresee where he should be to disrupt opposition play and the physical means to make it so. He showed this extremely well against Burnley.

After a turnover in play, Southampton players are caught upfield. With only the two centerbacks in the back, Hojbjerg (yellow circle) recognizes Hendrick will be able to run at the defensive line if he picks up the ball in space. As such here we see Hojbjerg sprinting to cover that space.

In the play above, Hojbjerg is able to cover Hendrick effectively, closing off a passing channel and forcing Burnley to play a long ball that ends the attack.

In the same game, a So’ton turnover after a corner leads to what seems like a great counterattacking opportunity for Burnley. Hojbjerg seems unable to affect play, leaving Bertrand and James Ward Prowse a lot to do .
In fact, Hojbjerg sprints back and intercepts an underhit pass from Cork to Vydra. In the 94th minute, he made up the ground from the top of the 18 to the middle of the pitch to protect his team. Had he not made the interception So’ton would still have a one man defensive advantage due to his run.

Tottenham need a player in the middle of the pitch that, in transition, can catch up to the play and help disrupt the attack.

Against Leipzig, Spurs gave up possession in the attacking third, which resulted in a counterattack from the German team and consequently their first goal.

Winks is caught upfield, while Leipzig attack with a dangerous shape. Winks has to cover Nkunku’s late run as the defensive line each have their own man to cover.

The entire top of the 18 becomes a danger zone as the pass is played infield and all Leipzig attackers halt their run. Spurs should have a midfield player breaking up space in the middle, as these situations occur often for Spurs.

By no means is Winks entirely at fault here, its impossible to ask a player to be in two places at once. However, given how often Spurs find themselves in a position like the one above, a player like Hojbjerg would offer extra protection for Spurs backline, even against the best teams, as he does for Southampton.

Against Liverpool, So’ton find themselves in a tough situation as the Reds have completely played around their defensive shape and find 5 (!) players in between the lines. Hassenhutl has instructed his team to play aggressively, so Bednarek has license to press, although it opens up a gap of space behind him.
Instead of double teaming Henderson, Hojbjerg runs right past the duel to cover the space that Bednarek has left open. He’s able to intercept the ball and defuse the danger. Notice how Bednarek is too far behind to make the interception.

Elsewhere, I’ve written about how Mourinho uses Dier in his system. The Englishman has had some shaky performances in the midfield, but he successfully slots in as a third centerback in the middle of play. Using Hojbjerg in the same role would be a bit of a waste, but examples like the one above indicate that not only can Hojbjerg plug a defensive hole in the strategic sense, but in the tactical play by play sense as well.

There’s no doubt that Hojbjerg’s success is due partially to the system that he plays in. Southampton are scarily aggressive and intense when they are off the ball, with the lowest Plays Per Defensive Action (PPDA) in the League (8.73), which delineates how many passes on average a team makes before a tackle/challenge/foul is made (Spurs are at 12.59).

Southampton players trust each other to cover their man, understand the pressing triggers, and shift their positioning accordingly. When the press does fall apart as it is bound to, Hojbjerg is rarely the reason for it.

No doubt Southampton use the foundation that Pochettino laid at his time there to feed into the intensity that they bring to every match. In fact, re-watching the most recent Spurs-Southampton game made me nostalgic for prime Pochettino Spurs and their aggressive pressing.

Hojbjerg identifies a great pressing opportunity - by making up a lot of ground he can pressure Dier while at the same time blocking a passing lane to Lucas while Bertrand covers Aurier and Redmond Tanganga. Dier underhits the pass and Bertrand is able to recover possession.

The most noticeable benefits of bringing Hojbjerg to North London are two-fold. First and foremost, Hojbjerg’s work rate can help ease the demand of defensive duties on Ndombele. The Frenchman certainly has to put in more work in tracking back, but it’s unreasonable to think he can be the patrolling, defensive midfielder Spurs need at the moment.

Ndombele’s defensive actions during his last season at Lyon. Notice how concentrated his defensive actions are - he can regain possession in his zone, but to bring the best out of him he needs to be partnered with a midfielder who has more energy/the aggression to hunt the ball. Tousart fit this role well for Lyon which saw Ndombele reach the heights that made him an attractive transfer target. (Via StatsBomb)

In a midfield two, or perhaps a three, Hojbjerg would prove to be an effective anchor for Ndombele and one of Winks/Dier (or if we’re facing a side that sits deep, Lo Celso).

The second major benefit - this break in football offers Mourinho a unique chance at a second first impression, as Alex Keble noted in his article. If Spurs are serious about bringing in Hojbjerg, it might indicate a shift in tactical thinking for Mourinho. That is, perhaps a more proactive midfield with a hungry engine that can hunt the ball for ninety minutes every week.

Hojbjerg would seemingly be able to do that for Spurs.