In many ways, we put too much pressure on Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham team. Following consecutive challenges for the Premier League title, it’s easy to forget how young this side actually is – it has the second youngest age of any top-flight team this season – and by the traditional laws of footballer development, its biggest stars are only now entering the cusps of their peaks.
It’s as promising for the north London club as it is frightening for their Premier League rivals, considering the standards Spurs have already set, that their best is theoretically still yet to come. Young players already established as top-class could soon become world-class, and although this season hasn’t brought another bid for the domestic crown, Tottenham’s unforgettable nights in Europe – beating Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund at Wembley and pulling off a two-goal comeback against Juventus in Turin earlier this week – have shown real signs of a prodigious team coming of age.
In fact, maturity was the prevailing adjective yielded from Pochettino’s post-match comments following not only a domineering performance against a side that have reached the Champions League final twice in three years, but also a run of impressive results against key divisional rivals – a comfortable 2-0 win over Manchester United, a thrilling draw at Anfield and a 1-0 victory in the north London derby that could have been by a far greater margin.
The Juventus performance, particularly, is a far cry from how Tottenham collapsed during the Battle of Stamford Bridge at the end of 2015/16 as the Premier League title slipped away from them, not to mention when Tim Sherwood accused them of capitulation against the same opponents at the same venue two years prior.
“You can’t legislate for the capitulation – you can’t have that. Lack of characters, too many of them too nice to each other. You need to show a bit more guts and not want to be someone’s mate all the time. They need to drag it out of each other. It hurts me and I won’t forget about this when we hit the motorway, but some might.”
Indeed, Tottenham have continually grown under Pochettino’s watch and it now feels we’re looking at a far more complete, far more mature and far more varied side. And few players symbolise that transition quite as accurately as Christian Eriksen, the first of Tottenham’s youthful attacking cast to cross over the barrier of young and developing to footballer in his prime earlier this week upon turning 26. That’s not to say Eriksen can’t improve further, but he’s now reached an age where he’ll be judged almost exclusively on ability rather than further potential.
Which begs the question of what, aged 26, Tottenham truly have at their disposal. Where does Eriksen rank against his contemporaries, does he provide the consistency a 26-year-old should and Spurs desperately need, does he have the quality to take Spurs to a Premier League title and perhaps most pertinently of all, does he qualify as a world-class player? Let’s take a look at the statistics.
The ultimate problem with analysing No.10s is that there’s no strict template or obvious way to categorise them in terms of style, like with centre-backs or centre-forwards. No.10s come in all shapes and sizes and can play out wide, centrally, as part of the midfield or the attack. But there is one common denominator all No.10s share regardless of the qualities they offer or where they’re deployed; all are expected to score goals, create goals and return the freedom they’re granted with match-winning quality.
Some emphasise scoring over providing or the other way around, some are heavily involved in build-up play and some prefer to stealthily wait for their chances. But what is decisively clear from the 75-cap Danish international’s per-match returns in the Premier League this season is that he offers an important balance between all of those aspects. While he doesn’t rank the highest for chances created or shots at goal, he doesn’t rank the lowest on any of those fronts either from the seven No.10s we looked at spanning the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga.
In fact, he ranks third on both fronts and when we combine those returns to create a unique statistic of shots per match Eriksen has either directly or indirectly contributed to, the only two No.10s to outperform his average of 5.1 are Kevin De Bruyne – the attacking dynamo of arguably the best side in Europe this season – and Philippe Coutinho, who has just completed a £142million transfer to Barcelona. Even if Eriksen isn’t the greatest No.10 around, he’s certainly keeping himself in exceptionally high, exceptionally lucrative company.
Where Eriksen does stand apart from his contemporaries though, is the level of precision in his shot-taking with 67% accuracy. As Harry Kane will readily vouch, it’s of intrinsic importance to make the goalkeeper work even when you’re not regularly finding the net. In comparison, his passing accuracy is actually a little on the low side at 82% – only Coutinho has fared worse this season – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it suggests a healthy mix between passes that retain possession and riskier balls to create attacking chances.
Likewise, Eriksen is a very consistent player, at least in terms of chance creation, arguably to a greater extent than many Tottenham fans would assume. There have often been criticisms of the 26-year-old drifting in and out of games and going missing just when Tottenham need him to deliver.
But there have only been five Premier League matches out of 26 in which he’s failed to create at least two chances this season, while he’s created at least three in more than half of them and more than three in just over a quarter. To give some comparison to show how impressive that is, the highest average return for any player in Europe’s top five leagues this season is Neymar with 3.5 created chances per match, and only four players have an average higher than three.
That’s not to say Eriksen is without flaws though. Although Tottenham are revered for their ability to press high up the pitch, Eriksen averages less than two ball-winning actions (tackles or interceptions) per match in the Premier League – a far cry from De Bruyne or James Rodriguez who produce at least one tackle per game.
Likewise, perhaps because he’s not a particularly effective dribbler and has never boasted the ability to speed past opponents, Erisken has the worst and second-worst returns respectively for times dispossessed and unsuccessful touches per match this season, essentially giving the ball away 4.3 times each game. By the standards of elite No.10s, that average is far too high.
But if we’re talking in terms of who Tottenham could theoretically sign to upgrade on Eriksen, candidates are far from forthcoming, especially amid a Champions League campaign that has seen Tottenham and their chief playmaker truly rise to prominence. In Europe this season, only two midfielders have applied more key passes than Eriksen, only five have taken more shots at goal and only seven have produced a greater return than his two goals.
Of course, those rankings could quickly change by the time the Round of 16 is over, but they become truly significant when you consider the calibre of side Tottenham have faced – two teams that have reached the Champions League final and the first ever team to win the Champions League title in consecutive campaigns, all within the last five years. In terms of Premier League rankings, meanwhile, he’s in the top ten midfielders (wingers included) for goals, assists, shots and key passes.
So, does that put Eriksen into the bracket of world-class? While that description is always open to interpretation, even without the statistics it’s clear he’s not at the same level as the likes of De Bruyne, who has run the show at City this season, while he’s not as consistent a creator as Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil or as prolific a goal threat as Coutinho. Likewise, there are clear weaknesses to his game in terms of running with the ball and surrendering it to the opposition too easily at times. There are obvious grounds for further improvement.
But let’s not forget we’re talking about a player Tottenham picked up from Ajax for just £11million, who has since developed into one of the best in the business, even if he’s not the very best. And the real question now is whether Eriksen can handle the expectation of being a top-end footballer amid his peak years rather than someone we expect to further grow. That’s very much the difference between Eriksen bringing silverware to the north London club or failing to recognise Spurs’ progress with a much-deserved trophy.
“I think Christian had an amazing game. He was outstanding. He was fantastic. Christian is doing, in my few years, always an important player for us. He always steps up and I think he’s this type of player who represents our philosophy. He’s a player who links the team and he was fantastic. The team was great, but he was fantastic.”
But goals against Manchester United and Juventus in two of the most significant games of Tottenham’s season thus far suggests he’s ready to shoulder that responsibility. As Pochettino said after his Man of the Match performance against the Italian champions earlier this week, the attacking midfielder ‘always steps up’.