Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg may have split opinion among some Tottenham fans last season but he has continued to show on and off the pitch exactly why Antonio Conte rates him so highly.
Only Harry Kane played more minutes than the Dane’s 3,986 for Tottenham last season, with both appearing in 50 matches for the club. Ben Davies, with 51 appearances, was the only player used more by Conte than Hojbjerg across all competitions in a busy season. The 26-year-old started the campaign well under Nuno Espirito Santo, had a dip in form midway through the season but finished the campaign strongly alongside Rodrigo Bentancur, with some big performances in key games, and the midfielder has shone this week for Denmark on international duty.
Hojbjerg is a fascinating personality in the dressing room at Tottenham, part of the leadership group within the squad and he is a man with big opinions on everything going on around him at the club. Those behind the scenes describe the articulate Dane as an intense character within the squad, one who constantly drives his team-mates on but also can be a lot to handle at first for those who have not experienced his demeanour before.
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Hojbjerg leads by example and has often played with injuries for Spurs when he should not have, because he did not want to let the team down. football.london understands that he, along with Eric Dier, is the first player to arrive at the club’s Hotspur Way training complex each morning and is one of the last to leave.
For Hojbjerg, the switch to Conte’s strict food controls from November onwards proved no issue at all because the former Bayern Munich and Southampton midfielder invests heavily in his personal nutrition and keeps himself in the best possible shape off the pitch. He is often spotted doing yoga at the training complex.
The Dane is someone who questions everything around him, at times with brutal honesty, and that extends into his relationship with Conte, with some within the club admitting the two men share many traits and similarities in their personalities. Although he has a strong view on football, forged over the years, the Italian head coach does encourage discussion with his senior players.
He shares that notion with his predecessors at Tottenham, with Mauricio Pochettino once admitting that he would constantly have back and forth debates with defender Jan Vertonghen over every aspect of tactics and training.
“It is true that we clash a lot in training because [Jan] is clever and always has an argument and a reason why, but in the end I appreciate a lot his efforts in giving the team what we expect from him,” said the Argentine back in 2019. “It is good to praise him because he is a very good player who sometimes does not get valued enough. I am so proud that he has achieved this level today. Not only on the pitch but off the pitch. In my opinion he’s one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League and in Europe.”
There is a similarity in the way Pochettino spoke of Vertonghen then as Conte does about Hojbjerg now. As his post-match press conference was drawing to a close after Spurs’ 5-1 demolition of Newcastle in the season’s final month, the Italian questioned why nobody had mentioned his midfielder.
“I am seeing many players with great improvement. Also Pierre, no one asked me about him, but I think in every game he is doing a fantastic job, with the ball, without the ball, strong physically,” said the head coach. “Every player is improving their level and for this reason Tottenham is going up and up.”
The feeling between the pair is mutual with Hojbjerg seeing the reasoning behind Conte’s ways of doing things and it’s perhaps telling that he refers to him by his first name.
“Antonio is a special coach, with a special way of doing things, with a very high level of performing. There is always a time of adaptation, a time of understanding the sports side and also the personal side, and everything is coming together well,” said the Dane.
The two men are equally passionate and driven yet some Tottenham fans thought they had spotted a crack in their dynamic on the pitch after the 3-2 win at Manchester City. Conte was hugging all of his players on the turf after the big victory but when he reached Hojbjerg, the midfielder appeared – from certain angles – to pull his arm away and stride off before the head coach could congratulate him. Conte was left there, awkwardly standing with his arms outstretched, pausing for a while as he looked at the back of Hojbjerg in bewilderment.
However, the Spurs boss later played it down, saying the midfielder had simply not seen him and they had celebrated together in the dressing room just moments later.
Hojbjerg was a key figure for Conte as Tottenham swept into fourth place. One criticism of the Dane from the fans is that sometimes his passing can be erratic but he showed real moments of quality in the final months, particularly with one chipped assist for Harry Kane in the victory at Leeds United.
In the big matches, Hojbjerg was there for his team and then some. He was an immense presence in the draw at Anfield as he was in the north London derby against Arsenal and he was a crucial figure in the dramatic turnaround at Leicester.
Hojbjerg made 78 successful tackles in the Premier League last season, more than any other player at the club and placing him ninth in the tackle list for everyone in the league. He also completed 2,531 passes, sixth in the Premier League list behind a clutch of players from possession-heavy Manchester City, and 3,059 touches, fifth in the list, showcasing just how busy he is during matches.
“I want to try and play for the big titles. I’m not scared to say when you go to Tottenham, people might not expect you to win things because of recent history. I fully understand that but really want to change the cycle. Also, for my own career, my ambition, I want to fight,” he said in an interview with the Daily Mail in April.
“You don’t associate my style with big headlines but my contribution is for the team. One thing I know I can do is compete with anyone because it’s in my blood. I like to push everyone, starting with myself, to the limit.”
His form has continued after the Premier League season with dominant displays for Denmark in their victories in France and Austria, providing an assist against the former and scoring against the latter.
Against Hugo Lloris’ French team on Friday, Hojbjerg was one of the best players on the pitch, touching the ball 105 times, almost double the next busiest player for Denmark. He played two key passes, completed one dribble, made two tackles, two interceptions and two clearances in an all round performance.
Against Austria on Monday evening, he was named man of the match, scoring while providing a key pass, making three dribbles on the night and at the other end making three interceptions, one tackle and one key clearance as well as blocking two goalbound Austrian shots.
There is set to be increased competition in Tottenham’s midfield next season with Oliver Skipp to return from his pelvic injury to challenge Hojbjerg and Bentancur and Spurs are expected to bring in a new face to replace Harry Winks, who wants regular first team football somewhere next season, with Hojbjerg’s compatriot Christian Eriksen among those being looked at.
Some Spurs fans have questioned Hojbjerg’s quality, particularly during his mid-season dip in form, but it’s clear what he brings on and off the pitch. He might be an intense character but with a huge season ahead, the Dane could be exactly what Conte and the team needs as they take on the best in Europe.