Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg no longer guaranteed Tottenham start as Liverpool draw has transformative impact

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·3-min read
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg no longer guaranteed Tottenham start as Liverpool draw has transformative impact
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  • Dele Alli
    Dele Alli
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  • Harry Winks
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Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s consecutive run of Premier League starts for Tottenham ended at 52 when he missed last weekend’s pulsating 2-2 draw with Liverpool.

Between joining Spurs in August 2020 and Sunday, Hojbjerg did not miss a single League game – a consistency which underlined his durability but emphasised the troubling lack of competition in Spurs’ midfield.

The area has long felt like a weakness for the club, going all the way back to Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure and the departure of Mousa Dembele, who left a gaping hole in the squad when he moved to China in January 2019.

The declines of Harry Winks and Dele Alli, and the inconsistencies of Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso have contributed to the sense that Spurs need a drastic overhaul in midfield, even if Hojbjerg and, latterly, Oliver Skipp have been impressive.

Almost overnight, though, the Liverpool game has shifted perceptions and the situation suddenly feels more positive.

Hojbjerg is back in contention for Wednesday’s Carabao Cup quarter-final against West Ham but there is no guarantee he will go straight back into Conte’s side.

Winks and Dele came in from the cold against Liverpool and excelled, with Conte’s switch to a three-man midfield allowing both to offer a timely reminder of their qualities.

Given space in a deep-lying role, as he was against Liverpool, Winks has the range of passing to spring counter-attacks and unlock stubborn defences, and he was responsible for creating several big chances, including Heung-min Son’s equaliser.

He also showed his battling qualities with a sliding tackle to win possession for Harry Kane’s opening goal.

Dele was given licence to break forward and do what he does best, and his well-timed runs into the box were a constant problem for Liverpool’s defence.

Conte almost appeared to take credit for unlocking the pair, saying his formation brought out the best in them.

"When we play in this way, with this formation, with a No4 in front of the three central defenders, I think Winks is very, very good," Conte said.

On Dele, he added: "With the formation we played, I helped him. Because he’s a No8. A midfield with three players, I think this is his proper role."

 (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
(Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

Ndombele also caught the eye with a fine assist for Kane, a pass which no-one else in the Spurs squad would have been likely to play.

There were caveats to Sunday’s positives, notably Liverpool being without a whole midfield of their own following positive tests for Fabinho, Thiago Alcantara and Curtis Jones, with Jordan Henderson ill.

Conte, meanwhile, has pointedly said that consistency is key where Dele is concerned and the club remains open to loaning him out in January.

Nonetheless, a midfield three of Winks, Dele and Ndombele now feels like a viable approach for West Ham and beyond, even with Hojbjerg and Skipp available again.

As the squad continues to recover from a Covid outbreak and two-week break, Conte has said he will alter his formation and personnel depending on the condition of his players over the gruelling festive schedule, but the Liverpool match suggested a three-man midfield suits the Italian’s squad.

Not only did it allow Winks, Dele and, to a lesser extent, Ndombele to shine but the system also unleashed the pairing of Kane and Son, which had previously struggled to come alive this season.

Hojbjerg has many qualities as a holding or box-to-box player but lacks Winks’ passing range, Dele’s timing and finishing, and Ndombele’s creativity.

After being an automatic starter for so long, there are suddenly no guarantees over the Dane’s place in the side, which feels like a significant step forward for Conte’s Spurs.

From feeling like a dead area of the team, Spurs suddenly have exciting competition for places in the midfield.

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