Last month, Andres Ramirez wrote about (seemingly soon to be Tottenham) defensive midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg from a tactical perspective, arguing that he’s pretty good and will provide Spurs with a player who can cut off passing lanes, actively run down players all match, and do the tactical work that Jose Mourinho desires. I agree with him, but as is my wont, I’d like to give it a bit of a data bent, particularly as I’ve gotten the sense that Tottenham fans (and fans at large) don’t have a good sense for his particular talents and skill set.
A few radars might help show, and then I can tell.
Pierre-Emile Højbjerg— smarterscout (@smarterscout) July 19, 2020
But keep in mind that both played differently under earlier managers. Higher ball retention for Højbjerg, more aggressive defending for Winks. pic.twitter.com/TNKpuSQNFr
The thing about PEH is that he’s good. He’s above average at breaking up play. He’s above average at creating chances and advancing the ball. He’s above average at dribbling and not getting dispossessed when he does. His work-rate, as measured by recoveries and pressures, is nearly unparalleled in the league.
Hojbjerg is 23rd out of 124 midfielders (as defined by players where MF is listed first in their profile on Fbref.com) in tackles + interceptions per 90 this season when you don’t possession adjust (which you shouldn’t for midfielders) and 26th in tackle percentage against dribbles. He is 22nd in successful pressures per 90. He is first in recoveries per 90 (Lerma, Jorginho, Kante, Ndidi, are the next 4). He’s 35th of 124 in live ball passes that lead to a shot within two actions (for reference, the top 5 in this category are KDB, Silva, Pogba, Keita, and Bruno), adding more creativity from a deeper midfielder than Spurs have seen in some time.
A quick comparison of his defensive action numbers with Spurs’ main midfielders for the last two seasons:
I could keep going, but the numbers look like this in terms of dribbles, dribble success rate, and progressive distance. He ranks highly in progressive passes and passes into the penalty area and final third. He’s quite simply a very good all-around midfielder. He’s also pretty big and quite good in the air.
His passing percentage pops as relatively low on first blush, but that is as a result of the tactical demands of his manager. Those passes into the final third and the penalty area above don’t come without risk. At Bayern as a child his passing percentage was near 90%, and was about 88% in his time at Schalke, and was 86% when he was managed by Puel at Southampton. Southampton under Hassenhutl, however, just constantly push the ball and do not try to possess the ball. Instead, they pass aggressively and then try to win it back aggressively.
Pep Guardiola thought Hojbjerg might be the next Busquets per Pep Confidential. Obviously, that was too effusive, but Hojbjerg remains relatively young, and will turn 25 on August 5. He’s just 200 days older than Harry Winks. Perhaps there is still time for him to take another step up (though we should not bet on it at this age), and to make good on that pedigree, but he is already a very good midfielder who will raise the floor of Tottenham substantially.
Regardless, neither Jose Mourinho or Mauricio Pochettino has been able to get Spurs to defend in transition for two seasons now. Obviously, Mourinho is at fault for some of that, in not playing Tanguy Ndombele. For whatever their strengths they have (Sissoko’s relentless energy, Winks’s tidiness), 9000 minutes of Winkssoko midfields have simply left Tottenham too vulnerable in transition. Spurs fans have been calling out for a defensive midfielder to replace Wanyama and Mousa Dembele. While he’s not at Dembele’s level defensively, Spurs fans may wake up and realize the boring signing of Hojbjerg does much more to restore the team’s foundation than realized.