"Does he dominate games enough?” asked Mauricio Pochettino rhetorically about Christian Eriksen in December. “That is a challenge for him. Maybe we need to go further and try to assess his personality, character, his position on the pitch, his quality.”
You understand what Pochettino was saying, too. In a league built on individual stars in which brand recognition form an increasingly integral part of reputations, Eriksen is the antidote. Tottenham’s manager was reminding those journalists present that is far too easy to overlook Eriksen’s impact.
So did those listening to Pochettino’s words heed his warning? Well, no. ‘Mauricio Pochettino questions Christian Eriksen's ability to dominate games,’ read Sky Sports’ headline. And so Eriksen’s understated, underrated reputation grows.
Domination is one way, but far from the only way. There are those footballers who are memorable through image, style, affectation or price tag as well as talent, and others content just to be. Eriksen is the poster boy for that second camp.
Look at the list of the Premier League’s top five chance creators since the start of last season. Mesut Ozil, who cost £42.5m and is subject to negotiations over an increase to his £140,000-a-week wage. Alexis Sanchez, who cost £35m and shares a contract stand-off with Ozil. Dimitri Payet, who signed a new deal at West Ham worth £125,000 a week and was sold for £25m at the age of 29. Kevin de Bruyne, bought for £55m and paid £150,000 a week.
And then there is Eriksen. Since the beginning of last season, only two Premier League players have created more chances and none have as many assists. He has also scored 38 goals in three-and-a-half seasons since joining Spurs, more than Juan Mata over the same time period.
More impressively, Eriksen’s total of 34 league goals and assists combined since the start of 2015/16 cannot be bettered by any other Premier League midfielder; not Ozil, not De Bruyne and not Eden Hazard. Eriksen is also younger than all three of those players.
Until last September, Eriksen had been on a basic weekly salary of just £35,000 at Tottenham. Harry Kane was the subject of reported Manchester United interest, while Dele Alli has been linked to both Real Madrid and Barcelona. The only real rumours linking Eriksen with a move away from Tottenham came in August 2016, when Italian media and then the Daily Telegraph claimed Inter and Juventus were interested after Eriksen had demanded £150,000 a week from Tottenham. A month later, Eriksen had expressed his delight at a deal worth ‘just’ £70,000 per week.
Headlines about underpaid footballers may be less common than the opposite, but that merits shouting from the rooftops. If there are indeed better creative players in the Premier League, none come at better value that a 25-year-old Dane signed for just £11.5m (or three-quarters of a Jordon Ibe, in today’s ludicrous market). Eriksen is earning £40,000 a week less than Ashley Young, and is more than six years younger.
Yet for all his creative impact, Eriksen is not a player on whom praise is showered regularly. Tottenham players have won four of the last five PFA Young Player of the Year awards, but the exception was in 2013/14, when Eriksen was named Tottenham’s Player of the Year at just 22. Surrounded by young, exciting English talent, Eriksen gets lost in the patriotic noise. He is one of the best value signings in the Premier League’s last decade, criminally underrated.
Eriksen has never been nominated for the Young Player of the Year award, despite being eligible right up until 2016. He was the leading chance and assist provider for a title challenger last season, yet Ross Barkley and Jack Butland both received nominations ahead of Eriksen. Barkley has been nominated twice.
Perhaps he suffers mainly for his nationality, although not through any wilful xenophobia. Eriksen has been named Danish player of the year in three of the last four years, but his country have not qualified for a major tournament since 2012 despite the expansion of the European Championship, and are unlikely to make the 2018 World Cup. The youngest player of the 2010 World Cup might not get another chance.
Yet Tottenham supporters too are guilty of overlooking Eriksen’s attacking influence. Dele Alli has the nutmegs and the English passport, but Eriksen has at least as much case to be lauded. Any accusation that he is a fair-weather player without the inclination to work could not be wider of the mark. Since the beginning of October, Eriksen has completed 90 mins in league on 17 occasions. In 15 of those matches he has covered more ground than any Tottenham player, and he was a close second in the other two.
His manager certainly agrees, Pochettino regularly speaking of his admiration for Eriksen’s aggression with and without the ball. No player can coast in Pochettino’s Tottenham system, but the aptitude and attitude required from a lightweight playmaker to flourish at White Hart Lane is no mean feat. If there is a criticism that he can occasionally underperform in the biggest away games, it is a charge that can be labelled against plenty of his teammates too.
Eriksen’s aggression is particularly impressive considering his workload. Since August 2014, he has played 126 club matches. Turning 25 only a fortnight ago, Eriksen has already played 390 career matches.
Skill, stamina, spark and stability, all in a 24-year-old who cost £11.5m and has signed a four-year-deal worth a fraction of the reported demands of his Premier League peers. Christian Eriksen does not have a force of personality that will demand greater respect for his ability and achievements, but that does not mean he doesn’t deserve it. It’s the quiet ones you have to watch.