If you were compiling a list of things it isn’t worth wasting your energy getting annoyed about, the longlist for the Ballon d’Or would rank pretty high. Until Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo retire and hand football back to the mere mortals, this is a perennial competition to see who can come third.
Still, looking through the names of the seven Premier League players nominated for the award, one has to wonder quite what Christian Eriksen needs to do to be recognised. If the argument is that the Dane hasn’t dragged his club to any significant, tangible glory – the same argument regularly used by rival supporters whenever Tottenham or their players are praised – Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane are presented as Exhibits A and B.
You must also not have been paying much attention to World Cup 2018 qualifying, in which Denmark lost two of their first three group games but then went seven unbeaten and reached the play-offs. In those final seven crucial games, Eriksen scored seven times. Only four players in European qualifying (Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, Romelu Lukaku and Andre Silva) scored more goals. At 25, Eriksen is the leader of his country, if not quite his club.
The thing is, we like draggers. At a time when concentration spans are low and football is absorbed in a thousand and one different ways, it is the players who stand out that become the most notorious. Yet Eriksen has never been in that category. His majesty has always been the understated, underrated kind.
Eriksen has regularly dismissed the assessment of his form in numerical terms of assists and goals – “They’re only numbers. It’s about thinking” – but that makes the figures no less impressive. In 2017, Eriksen has created nine more chances than any other player in the Premier League, and only five have had more shots on target. The comparison with Kevin de Bruyne, the league’s best attacking midfielder, is neat: both have five goals and 12 assists this calendar year. Eriksen is nine created chances and 15 shots on target ahead.
The difference is that De Bruyne is more of a dragger. That doesn’t have to mean chest-beating call-to-arms, but leading through example. It’s also not just because of moments such as his winner against Chelsea a fortnight ago, but because his style of play just appears more dominating than Eriksen’s. De Bruyne has completed 39 dribbles to Eriksen’s 18 in 2017, and registers more passes and touches per 90 minutes.
It’s also true that Tottenham have two other attacking players who make for better headlines and better heroes. In Dele Alli and Harry Kane, Mauricio Pochettino has developed two probable pillars of the England team for next five years, so it is perfectly natural that they would receive the attention that Eriksen may deserve. Were Eriksen English, he would be lauded. Were Eriksen English, our national team would have the creator that we are crying out for when waking up in cold sweats thinking about Russia next summer.
Yet Alli and Kane are also draggers, players whose impact on the game is more constantly obvious than their teammate. Eriksen is more like David Silva, no less magnificent than De Bruyne but with an altered image that creates altered perceptions. These are the supporting actors, but without whom the film would be nothing.
Eriksen certainly has longevity on his side. Take those same statistics back to the start of 2015/16: He ranks second in the Premier League for chances created (behind Mesut Ozil), fourth for shots on target (behind Kane, Lukaku and Sergio Aguero), joint first for assists, fourth for most touches. He is an all-rounder. Goals plus assists since August 2015? De Bruyne has 44, Eriksen 46.
Examining the top chance creators in that period highlights just how much Eriksen is taken for granted. Mesut Ozil will either negotiate a contract worth close to £250,000 a week at Arsenal or move to a club with better prospects of meaningful trophies. De Bruyne joined Manchester City for £55m. Eden Hazard is paid £200,000 a week and is regularly linked with a move to Real Madrid.
Then there’s Eriksen, who signed a new contract in September 2016, doubling his wages from £35,000 a week to £70,000. Last season, he would not even have been the highest-paid player in the Championship. While Kane, Alli, Danny Rose and Eric Dier continue to be linked with lucrative moves at home and abroad, Eriksen goes unnoticed.
He is not the perfect player. Eriksen does not score enough goals, although in his defence Tottenham have other players to do that. Instead, he is in charge of the supply. Since the start of 2015/16, he has created 22% of all Tottenham’s chances in the Premier League.
There is also a perception that he drifts in and out of games, particularly against the best opposition. Yet sometimes that is Eriksen’s deliberate ploy. When you have the weapons the Dane has, latency can often be a damn effective strategy. Suddenly Eriksen is there in a pocket of space. Suddenly Harry Kane is presented with a chance. Suddenly Tottenham have scored.
One myth that has been busted is that Eriksen doesn’t work hard enough. It is another product of ‘dragger’ syndrome; we like to see the cogs turning and the sweat pouring. Eriksen might be a player for whom perspiration and inspiration are given more equal billing than in Thomas Edison’s famous saying, but he is no shirker. Between October 2016 and March 2017, Eriksen completed 90 minutes in the league on 17 occasions. In 15 of those matches he covered more ground than any Tottenham player; he was a close second in the other two.
That workload is particularly impressive given Eriksen’s near-constant availability. The intensity of the Premier League causes regular injury and fatigue to its creative players, but Eriksen has missed just five of Tottenham’s last 130 league games.
It is an astonishing record, but one which is the norm for Eriksen. Aged just 25, he has already played over 420 senior career games. Consistency of form and fitness over years, not months, is incredibly rare in a modern attacking player.
The comparisons with De Bruyne, Hazard and others are instructive but also reductive, just like the interminable Messi vs Ronaldo debates. The entire beauty of watching football is that you don’t have to pick one player, but can instead sit back and enjoy them all like a wondrous footballing mix-tape. There is also a danger that Eriksen becomes labelled as ‘underrated’ so often and by so many that the argument becomes self-defeating.
Yet when Eriksen is unfairly overlooked, it is worth proclaiming (or re-proclaiming) his brilliance. If we really must compare him to the best in the Premier League, the differences are hardly stark. We are all Christian believers.