At 17 the Dane was a breakthrough talent at Bayern Munich, a player Pep wanted to develop and believed had a high ceiling when he was coaching the German giants. After two loans spells within the Bundesliga, he joined Southampton for £13.5m in 2016. With only one year left on his contract on the south coast, it’s looking likely that he is joining Spurs for about £15m.
Højbjerg turned 25 years old yesterday, the Danish international looks set to join Spurs and José Mourinho in an attempt to strengthen the midfield, particularly defensively. Everton were also interested but Højbjerg apparently had his sights set on Spurs. In this article I’m going to assess his strengths and weaknesses, why Spurs are interested and where he’ll fit within the side.
What do Spurs need?
Since the successful seasons of 2015-2018, Spurs have failed to replace their key players that left or declined and lacked squad depth in general during that time. Key problems have been in the middle of the park where Dier has had issues and is no longer a strong midfield option, while Wanyama and Dembele both aged and suffered with injuries. This has left Spurs with a Winks-Sissoko double pivot that isn’t the best. Ndombele came in as the club’s record signing to replace Dembele, which was a great signing but he has struggled in the first season but most have higher hopes for the nect campaign.
Next is a Wanyama replacement. A defensively solid midfielder who can win the ball back, control the midfield, protect the back line, start counter attacks and give Ndombele the protection and freedom he needs to excel in his game.
Højbjerg is currently looking like he’s going to be this player. Able to play in a two with Ndombele in a 4-2-3-1 and, although there are some other options I’d prefer, this will a good signing overall. Here’s why:
Out of Possession
At 6’1″ he’s got a lean build with a decent frame and a good amount of muscle but isn’t that imposing and isn’t going to bully attacking players. He isn’t a standout athletically, with decent pace and acceleration, okay turning speed and presses out well with fairly good short bursts of speed.
Højbjerg isn’t your traditional ball-winning 6 who screens the back line and doesn’t get forward much, such as Rice, Capoue, Fernandinho, Ndidi, Matic, etc. He steps forward a lot more and likes to press out. At Southampton he’s largely played in a midfield two, often with Ward-Prowse or Romeu. In the midblock, he is vocal and a good leader in midfield. He organises his side and shows himself as an intelligent player. I believe this is a very important factor for Spurs as Winks and Sissoko can look very disjointed at times and have to be organised by Lloris and Alderweireld constantly, lacking leadership in the middle.
He makes an average number of pressures for a Premier League midfielder but above average in the midfield third and also has excellent tackling and interception numbers, particularly in the defensive third. He also doesn’t make errors leading to shots for the opposition which is important for Spurs, especially when you compare it to Winks and Sissoko.
Højbjerg is an intelligent player out of possession. He has great work rate and stamina covering a lot of ground per game to press around the pitch, which is perfect for Southampton who are the most pressing team in the Premier League, without adjusting for possession. The Dane shows great anticipation and tactical understanding to be effective off the ball under Hassenhuttl.
He reads play very well, puts pressure on players as they receive the ball, forcing them backwards or to lose possession and when a teammate is pressuring a player he reads when to jump in to double up and win the ball easily well. He lurks behind players well, positioned behind them and allowing the passing lane to him and welcoming the pass, before jumping in as he tries to receive or to intercept.
He’s quick to fire out of the block and is very influential in Southampton’s pressing traps and presses with good intensity on triggers such as backwards passes and loose balls. Partly due to the system he plays in, he does operate all over the pitch and can be quite high up, rather than being more passive in a block and may have to adapt to being more disciplined with his positioning.
He doesn’t dive in and go for big sliding challenges often when pressing up the pitch, he tends to get shoulder-to-shoulder with his man and then if the ball becomes loose he’ll dive in for it and will tend to go to ground then instead of trying to poke it.
In one match when the opposition winger was running onto a throughball on the counter and he came across with a well timed slide tackle before the attacker got there. He celebrated the tackle and then was hyped up with his teammates, which suggests a few things. That Southampton have a good team culture, Højbjerg enjoys defending and is a passionate player. Enjoying and being proud of defending is something I value in a player, compared to midfielders who defend because they have to, but really they’re just waiting to get back on the ball.
He is less impressive in 1v1s where he is static or being run at, his body positioning can be too front-on and he can go to ground too early and is impatient, speaking to the high tempo that he plays overall, but here he needs to be calmer and improve his footwork. His tackle success rate this season was 35%, which is fairly good but could be better and he could improve his technique here to be more effective.
His recovery runs are good, able to track back well and close down wide players but his marking in the middle can be poor at times when tracking back and needing to pick up a runner into the box.
In aerial duels he isn’t that strong and doesn’t tend to get off the ground that often, not dealing with the opposition player particularly well and this could be something to improve on.
After Southampton lose possession and the opposition try to transition and attack, Højbjerg reads this and can be well positioned to quickly regain possession and stop the transition. Such as the example above where Southampton lose the ball in the final third and Norwich want to counter, Southampton have four players behind the ball now. Højbjerg is quick to step up and pressure the ball and start the counter press.
Overall, Højbjerg is an intelligent presser and is effective out of possession, showing leadership and intelligence on the pitch. He is good physically but not that great athletically. The Dane isn’t great in the air or in 1v1s where he’s static but has a great engine, works hard and does fix issues within our squad. However, he isn’t necessarily the exact role I thought we’d get which would be more of a Declan Rice or Fernandinho in terms of style. Instead he reminds me a lot more a player like Weston McKennie, who Southampton are looking to replace him with. However, similarly to Fernandinho, he is good at the art of the tactical foul.
As mentioned, Højbjerg started his career at Bayern Munich, where Pep Guardiola had just taken over as manager. In the book Pep Confidential by Martí Perarnau, which I highly recommend reading, it talks about Hojbjerg who was 17 at the time:
“It has taken just a couple of training sessions for [Pep] to fall in love with the player who clearly has a dazzling future ahead of him. Højbjerg reads the game brilliantly and has an astonishing ability to break through five players with a single pass. Pep thinks he may have found the Busquets of Bayern, although at 17 he has a bit of maturing to do.”
“Today, Højbjerg plays very well and Guardiola sees something of himself in the young Dane. He likes the way he positions his body when he gets the ball and then feints one way while actually intending to move in the opposite direction.”
He’s elegant on the ball, able to receive the ball in pockets of space in front of the defence on the turn. He takes touches into space and is a calm influence in midfield. At times at Southampton he’ll also cover for the right back pushing forwards and make a back three in buildup which could suit Spurs very well. He shows good awareness and decision making in buildup to be patient and pick the right moments to go forwards. Once the opportunity and space is there though, Højbjerg identifies it well, taking progressive touches and then looking to play line breaking passes. His ground passes have good power and speed and he shows good awareness to find teammates quickly when needed and scans the pitch a lot, completing head checks before receiving. He’s also comfortable playing with both feet, with 19% of his passes coming from his left foot showing that he is capable of using it when needed.
He isn’t that agile and under pressure he uses his physicality to protect the ball and remains very calm but I wouldn’t describe him as massively press resistant or explosive. He can lose the ball but usually is able to shift the ball away from pressure quite well and doesn’t allow himself to welcome pressure, shifting the ball quickly and recognising when to play.
His range of passing is a good strength for the midfielder, with nice technique he can put players into space well. This is important for Spurs as runners such as Dele, Kane and Son are great at running into space and getting in-behind, especially on the counter and against high lines. Currently Alderweireld or Winks tend to provide these balls over the top but Højbjerg will also be able supply these to feed the counter.
He wants to progress the ball and break lines with his passing, and with Kane, Dele and Lo Celso operating between the lines this will be dangerous for Spurs who have struggled to progress the ball in buildup. He does take risks with his passing, as shown by his low passing success rate but when they come off they can quickly turn slow, deep buildups into a high tempo attack at goal. Only 1% of his passes were intercepted thoughout this season.
He takes risks with his long passing, they can be overhit or played when they’re not on and at times he could just retain possession more, and under pressure he can try to force long balls into the channels. He’ll look to play decent diagonals into space and into the box from deep but doesn’t tend to switch play often and can be quite focused on the side of the pitch he’s on instead of looking for teammates in space. He will switch play at times though, but they can be quite floated and allow pressure onto the ball, or be overhit. Although his passing range can be a threat, it could definitely be refined and he could improve the weight of them at times.
He isn’t a technical dribbler like Ndombele in midfield and lacks the agility and low centre of gravity, but he can drive into space and break lines with it when the opportunity is there. In the final third he takes risks and is willing to try something, trying throughballs into the box with some good chipped passes. Particularly in wide areas, he will look to play some good combinations to play through tight areas but with mixed success. He isn’t great at dribbling in tight areas but was good at using pass-and-moves to progress down the wing.
He also was unfortunate not to score this season, with 3.2 xG he gets into some decent scoring positions and with a total of 0.16 expected goal contributions per 90 he has a decent affect in the final third despite being in a very deep role.
With Højbjerg signing for Spurs, their fans have been positive about it but not that excited, which is how I feel. He’s a good player and fixes some of the issues in the Spurs midfield. He’s a good pressing player with pretty good physicality and great work rate. He’s intelligent and a leader on the pitch. On the ball he has a pretty good range of passing, is elegant and is able to break lines and be progressive.
He’s fairly good at everything and is a well rounded midfield player who Spurs are getting at a good price. The signing makes a lot of sense, but you can’t help but feel there were better and more suitable options. From the outside it’s hard to know the financial situation at the club but you have to feel that we saw good value in Højbjerg at £15m and the better alternatives were deemed too expensive. Rice, Zakaria and Florenino Luis were my favourite options, as well as Camavinga but price is a big factor as I say. Højbjerg also has Premier League experience and is a leader on the pitch already which are good factors to have.
I’ve definitely grown to be more positive about this transfer as we’ve gotten closer to it and I think it’s a good signing, I was just hoping for a better one to really be a difference maker who can propel us back into the top 4. I think being so well-rounded without really being world class at anything, makes him a less exciting signing and less aesthetic for fans.
There is the possibility that if the club improves how fans want it to, the club could outgrow Højbjerg and be back in the market. This sounds negative but I’m not trying to be. He’s good for our current level and does improve us, but probably isn’t the quality we need to be where we want to be, but it’s a process.
I’d also recommend watching this from Nathan if you haven’t already.
Also this video from Abel Lorincz is a good watch and shows good examples of what I’ve talked about.