Entering the summer transfer window, Jose Mourinho was keen to sign a defensive-midfielder. It was high on his list of priorities, and Tottenham Hotspur wasted no time in finding the destructive holding presence he desired.
In fact, during a period when finances were tight and clubs had to smartly navigate the transfer market, Spurs swiftly and efficiently signed Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg from Southampton.
With a year remaining on his contract, it was a simple £15million deal to complete, but such was Mourinho’s eagerness to sign the player, the club was quick to respond.
Hojbjerg has since settled into the Spurs starting line-up wonderfully. Usually partnered with Tanguy Ndombele at the base of the midfield, he has proven an excellent defensive presence. Tough in the tackle, physically commanding, and combative when he needs to be, Hojbjerg has both protected the previously exposed and vulnerable Spurs backline and provided structure and balance to the midfield.
So far this season, Hojbjerg has won three tackles per 90 minutes, made 0.6 blocks per 90, and 2.4 clearances per 90. This comes after he led the Premier League with a massive 510 ball recoveries last season. He has been an extremely active defensive presence, which is just what Mourinho wanted.
But Hojbjerg is much more than just a destroyer. Yes, that is his primary function in the Spurs system, providing the foundation for the more creative players around him to push into advanced spaces of the pitch, but it is not his only quality.
Take the pressure that he imparts onto the opposition. A normal defensive-midfielder would sit in front of the backline and rarely push up the pitch. Hojbjerg, instead, is second in the Spurs squad in total pressures this season behind only Son Heung-Min.
Of his 86 pressures, 15 have come in the final third. In contrast, Harry Winks has just three final-third pressures.
Hojbjerg repeatedly instigates the high press, something that Mourinho has been keen to implement more effectively this season. Spurs’ improved defensive record is a testament to their more organised and intense pressing scheme, which is built on Hojbjerg’s awareness and willingness.
Meanwhile, in possession, he is a superb progresser of the ball. So far this season, he has played 5.4 progressive passes per 90 minutes. Even more pertinently, he has played 8.8 passes into the final third per 90. Of players that have played 90 minutes or more, that ranks eighth in the Premier League. No other Spurs player has played more than seven passes into the final third per 90 minutes.
Hojbjerg has maintained a 90.6% pass completion rate. Only Moussa Sissoko has a better rate in the Spurs squad. Moreover, his passes have covered a progressive distance of 378 yards per 90. To put that into context, the next highest outfield player in the Spurs squad is Harry Kane with 155.3 progressive yards per 90. Not only is Hojbjerg completing passes; he is completing effective and progressive passes.
Hojbjerg is also a strong ball-carrier. Only Eric Dier, Ndombele, and Son have carried the ball for a greater progressive distance per 90 minutes this season and his 91.4 touches per 90 minutes also lead the squad.
And there are Hojbjerg’s intangible qualities. After Spurs’ 6-1 thumping of Manchester United, their biggest win of the season to date, Hojbjerg praised the team’s character, something that he has shown in abundance.
“The word for me is character,” he said. “It shows that there is only one thing we are going for and that is to win every single game we are playing.
“Of course you need quality and of course you need fit players but for me the character really stands out that we keep going and keep pushing and that is very nice to be part of.”