On Monday night at Stoke, Christian Eriksen created two of Tottenham’s four goals to move past David Silva and Riyad Mahrez in the Premier League assist table, ran further than any of his teammates despite playing close to 60 hours of club football this season and was dispossessed just once in 90 minutes against a Potters side not shy in the tackle.
Had Eriksen picked up the Daily Mail on Tuesday, he may have been surprised to see himself awarded 6/10 for his performance, making him the equal of Glenn Whelan and inferior to Giannelli Imbula and Ibrahim Afellay. He ‘hit bar with great chance’, apparently. The clown.
In fact, he might not have been surprised at all; Eriksen is a player routinely taken for granted. His name will appear in barely any teams of the season even if he contrives to become the leading chance creator and assist-maker for the Premier League champions. He wasn’t even nominated for the Young Player of the Year award, for which he was still eligible. Yes, he’s still that young.
Eriksen is also conspicuous by his absence from transfer gossip columns. Harry Kane and Dele Alli are routinely linked with moves to Barcelona or Real Madrid but rarely Eriksen. Mauricio Pochettino may believe he is “one of the best in England” but The Guardian did not rank him amongst the best 100 players in the world at the end of 2015; we should tell you at this point that Memphis Depay was no. 86.
On the ball, both Ozil and Eriksen are a victim of their ability to dictate the pace of the game. The English are (at least initially) suspicious of anybody who can slow down play, as though only the lazy would want to play at anything other than breakneck speed. Only Ozil and Dimitri Payet have created more chances per 90 minutes than Eriksen in the Premier League this season, and the Dane does far more of the ‘dirty’ work than both.
It’s also worth pointing out that Eriksen cost a quarter of the price of Ozil, and less than Dimitri Payet despite being five years his junior. Furthermore, while the pace of the Premier League causes fatigue in its creative players, Eriksen seems immune. He’s played a part in 69 of Tottenham’s 72 league games since the beginning of last season, and 106 for club and country.
“I think he’s a complete player and he’s a player I like that I think fits with my philosophy,” says Pochettino. You simply cannot fit in with Pochettino’s philosophy if you are the luxury player Eriksen is often perceived to be. Eriksen has won 35 tackles in the league this season; Payet has less than half that number.
That said, Eriksen himself is pretty disdainful of the statistics anyone would use to make a case for him to receive greater plaudits. “They’re only numbers. It’s about thinking,” he said in December, citing a strength that cannot be measured by Opta.
There’s something in that quote: Eriksen is a thinker in a league obsessed with doers. He, Ozil, Silva and Juan Mata have two PFA Team of the Year places between them; none are prolific goalscorers, none are known for lung-busting runs, all are precociously talented. That Scott Parker can be named FWA Player of the Year in a season when Dimitar Berbatov wins a share of the Golden Boot on the way to winning the Premier League is telling.
The irony here is that Eriksen routinely runs further than Parker ever did, but his running is largely done horizontally, looking for space, probing for a weakness, searching for the ball. There is a perception that he drifts in and out of the game largely because he is constantly doing exactly that – drifting. Those who tried to make mischief with the suggestion that Eriksen was unhappy playing on the left largely missed the point; it doesn’t really matter where he plays.
“He’s a player where you cannot put him in a position and say ‘don’t move’. You need to give him some freedom because he’s a player that needs to run, that needs to be involved in the game,” says Pochettino and you wonder whether Eric Dier’s transition into central midfield was influenced by Eriksen’s desire to wander, a desire clearly worth indulging. You can play a nomad like Eriksen nominally on the flank when it is Danny Rose who actually occupies that space, liberated by Dier dropping into the defence.
The Tottenham story for this season has long been decided. It is a tale of young English talent (Dier, Rose, Kane, Alli) augmented by a core of mature foreigners (Hugo Lloris, Jan Verthongen, Toby Alderweireld) and those who are praised for their vast improvement (Erik Lamela, Mousa Dembele, Kyle Walker). That leaves Eriksen as the unfair and largely unheralded odd one out. Eriksen’s character has been given only a cameo role. Just don’t expect a Best Supporting Actor nomination any time soon.