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Why Hojbjerg is a problem, and it’s not his fault

Win or lose, Tottenham have not been themselves this season. Even before the Crystal Palace result, the team’s frailties had been laid bare by the xG tables which had Tottenham as a mid table team. There are other indicators of underperformance too, such as a failure to score from open play, failure to retain possession, in the bottom six for shots conceded. The team appears to be struggling with a lack of identity. We take a further look into this below, and understand what it means for the team central cog – Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

If those are the symptoms, what is the cause?

Taking a deeper dive into the first four league matches, there are some interesting findings. Nuno has set up his team as a variation on a 4-3-3, with a midfield of Hojbjerg-Skipp-Alli for the first three matches, and Winks taking Alli’s place on the left for the Palace game. 

Looking at the players’ average positions and heat maps provided by SofaScore, the most striking observation is the role of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg during the 21/22 campaign. The Dane is one of the most talented defensive midfielders in the world, he was ever present in 20/21 and his performances at Euro 2020 only added to his reputation. However, comparing this season to his previous one, touches per game are down by 17.5% and passing accuracy is lower, particularly in the opposition half. Hojbjerg’s, heat map for 20/21 is shown below:

Credit: SofaScore.com

This heatmap is almost identical to the 18/19 and 19/20 equivalent and demonstrates that when allowed the freedom to roam the middle of the pitch, Hojbjerg covers every blade of grass from the edge of his own area almost as far as the opposition’s box. The 21/22 equivalent, shown below show a restricted Hojbjerg confined to a role along the right-hand side of midfield, barely gracing the middle of the park. Further investigation indicates that Oliver Skipp is playing the central role previously held by the Dane in 20/21.

Credit: Sofascore.com

There is a correlation between the amount Hojbjerg is able to influence the game, and Tottenham’s ability to hold possession

Hojbjerg the nullifier

What is particularly interesting is that along this right hand side, Nuno has placed Hojbjerg against the opposition’s greatest attacking threat in terms of carries, Grealish, Traore, Zaha. In fact, the only game where this did not happen was the Watford game, where Hojbjerg most often faced Juraj Kucka. The Watford game represented a return to 20/21 highs for Pierre, with double his normal rate of touches (111), and attacking contributions as Tottenham dominated possession for the only game this season.

The solution

There is a correlation between the amount Hojbjerg is able to influence the games and Tottenham’s ability to hold possession. In 20/21 he was ever-present, had the highest passing accuracy, highest interceptions and was second in tackles per game. As good as Skipp is, it is unfathomable that he has taken the Dane’s position this season forcing him out to the right-hand side.

Short-term, I can identify two available option’s to allow Nuno to get the best out of his Number 5.

Firstly, a switch to a back three would allow Reguillon and Emerson to get forward and support the midfield in wider areas, allowing Hojbjerg and Skipp to concentrate on the middle of the park, a tactic which Chelsea employed to great effect in their victory against Arsenal at the Emirates.

Alternatively, dropping Skipp to the bench, and employing an alternative player on the right-hand side to take up duties for carries and tackling, laying off short passes to forward players etc. Looking at the squad, there appears to be deficiencies in this area, Alli prefers to drift to the left, Winks contributes going forward but lacks the discipline to carry out such a role. The player who appears most adaptable to this role is Giovanni Lo Celso, and although not a wholly natural fit, this would be my preference.

Longer-term, I would like to see this position specifically addressed in the January transfer window. Looking to Germany, there are a couple of options I would suggest pursuing.

Tyler Adams – DM/RM – 22 – Red Bull Leipzip – Value: £18m

Credit: The Athletic

Adams is the perfect player to fulfil the role Nuno has pushed Hojbjerg toward in 21/22. The American holds onto the ball well and has a good range of passing, as well as offering a defensive contribution in terms of interceptions, tackles and clearances. He has been used predominantly in a central role this season, although he played half of last season at right midfield and impressed in the position. 

Philipp Forseter – RM – 26 – VfB Stuttgart – Value: £3.5m

Credit: Kicker

A cheaper option, but still able to meet the requirement, Forster impressed for Stuttgart last season with his ability to press the opposition, as well as his defensive contribution. A regular contributor on the right-hand side he spent most of his time in 20/21 between the half-way line and opposition area where Hojbjerg has found himself. Forster has more recently played further forward for Stuttgart, but represents a low-risk option for Tottenham should Adams be unavailable.

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