What a good player Christian Eriksen is.
It’s easy to overlook how he has had to straddle the Tottenham eras, surviving first the fall of Andre Villas-Boas, then the blank-faced horror of Tim Sherwood, before rising to meet the expectations laid down by Mauricio Pochettino. He isn’t recognised for that enough.
It’s now been five years since Morten Olsen delivered his famously blunt criticism. Speaking after Denmark’s loss to Portugal in a Euro 2016 qualifier, he took aim at the country’s most important player in a generation and was savage in his assessment.
“After so many matches he could pick up the ball and help to control the game. He has not been able to. Therefore, we blame him. He must stand up to the criticism, and he does too. It is a brutal world, otherwise you have to play at another level. It is not Ajax any more, this is not development.”
You could sense anger, but also the frustration. Eriksen had been the great hope of Danish football for what seemed like an eternity by then, yet – still – he remained little more than a sporadic influence. He would drop in and out of games, producing ten minutes of excellence for every twenty of anonymity. So Olsen may have been harsh, but he was probably fair – and his withering remarks did come with a hidden compliment.
“…and he does too.”
Yes, he did stand up to the criticism. Then and now. And, yes, he did grow to become what Olsen wanted him to be. The flawed player that Tottenham bought for a knockdown price has adapted his game admirably. He has become a harder runner and a more diligent presser. Beyond the imperatives demanded by Pochettino, though, he has retained what it was that made him sparkle in the first place. He is still a crisp and pure ball-striker. His creative mind is still sharp. And his Spurs highlights, at the end of his sixth season, remain an absolute joy.
A week ago, it looked like there wouldn’t be a seventh season. Eriksen wanted a fresh challenge and Real Madrid’s interest has been known about for some time. Now, that seems to have changed. Madrid have been spraying cash around the continent and, with Luka Jovic, Eden Hazard and Rodrygo already through the door, Florentino Perez is seemingly reluctant to write another big cheque.
That makes sense. Perez is nothing if not a high-powered magpie and the chances are that Eriksen just isn’t quite shiny enough. He’s polite and even-tempered. He’s an excellent player rather than a truly exceptional one. And neither his name nor his image are going to help penetrate any developing markets. Perez likes posters. He wants players who send his sponsors into a frenzy. Eriksen isn’t that and, at the time of writing, there is next to no chance of him moving to Madrid.
And that’s good. That’s definitely good.
Actually, is that good?
One of the common remarks about Eriksen is that, without him, Tottenham just aren’t the same. That’s absolutely true. But as time goes on, it becomes less clear whether that’s an endorsement of the player or an inadvertent criticism of the way this team plays. As if, over time, his strengths and weaknesses are theirs too. It may sound contrarian to criticise a side at their modern apex, but it is alarming to note the correlation between Eriksen’s productivity and Spurs’ form.
It invites a proper examination of what he is. Or, at least, what it is that he allows Tottenham to do and be. He certainly uses the pitch extremely well and, actually, his ability to push full-backs into attacking space remains one of the team’s essential dynamics. His long-range delivery is also excellent and he can pass or shoot off either foot. Combine those qualities with his more industrious attributes and the result is an almost perfect component for Pochettino’s system.
Or not quite perfect, because there are issues. In all of his recent seasons, Eriksen has suffered through fallow periods. The more conspiratorial onlookers have suggested wavering focus; others have claimed fatigue. Whatever the diagnosis, it’s a running theme and, increasingly, a problem. After all, the higher Tottenham go in the game and the more win-or-bust matches they contest, the more important it is that the players at their vanguard deliver. It might not be an accusation Eriksen faces alone – some of Dele Alli’s recent performances have admittedly been dreadful, but he is not the one at a crossroads, he’s not the one forcing decisions about his future.
About a week ago, a Tottenham-supporting friend was talking about Eriksen in our WhatsApp group. He said, essentially, that while losing him would be regrettable, it would force a necessary reinvention of the attacking structure which might, from a technical standpoint, result in a net gain. Where a sale to happen, for instance, Pochettino would have the opportunity to introduce a different type of attacking midfielder in his place. Someone more physical, or at least more forceful. The kind of player who mucks in with the enabling work and conforms to the defensive structure, but who also possesses the personality and playing profile to have a more aggressive influence. To be destructive.
It’s a legitimate theory, because the implied criticism of Eriksen is fair, however mean spirited it sounds. He is a bit passive. Instead of taking what he wants from games, he takes what he’s given. Rather than someone who quietly exploits defensive lapses, perhaps Pochettino needs a midfielder behind his forwards who’s willing to swing an axe? A player who can carry the ball quickly and dangerously, someone with an ego and a healthy sense of entitlement.
That player would likely also come with a downside, particularly with Tottenham still shopping in the cheaper and younger end of the market. As a result, changing the nature of that particular position would demand an adjustment elsewhere – a compensation for securities lost – but, however it’s rationalised, it’s difficult to see the club making the jump towards where they want to be without taking this kind of risk. Continuity may be a virtue and it might well have been Spurs’ greatest strength during these awkward Wembley years, but other clubs continue to spend and grow at a quicker rate than they can naturally evolve.
It’s a conflicting situation. Eriksen has become synonymous with Pochettino’s time at the club and, while he has imperfections, he has earned and would have deserved to play on the stage that Real offer. Their fans would have made his life utterly miserable and been intolerant of his downturns, but that’s really a different issue. The culture around the modern transfer market may present player trading as a win-loss game, in which the buyer is always stealing something away, but – in reality – this could have been very convenient. A Champions League-standard midfielder for Zinedine Zidane; a very large contract for a likeable, talented and professional player; a huge fee with which Tottenham could begin a new phase. But this non-outcome is confusing. The supporters can be delighted that he’ll now likely stay, but still mindful of the opportunities his departure might have afforded.
There’s no proper answer to this question. Not really. This young, muscular, skilful and dynamic replacement being imagined may not even exist. And, if he does, every top club in Europe would likely be interested. But these are the realities of Tottenham’s model and also of trying to advance without the benefit of limitless resources. Eventually, if they want to have tangible reward for their progress, if they really have those appetites, then they will have to push their chips into the middle of the table.
If Eriksen has to be part of that pile too, sad as that would be, then now would probably be the time to play that hand.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter