By Ossian Shine
SOUTHAMPTON, England (Reuters) - Despite stripping Danish international Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg of the Southampton captaincy, the club's manager says the midfielder still has a key role to play in ensuring their Premier League safety.
While James Ward-Prowse, a Saint since joining the academy as an eight-year-old, takes the skipper's armband ahead of Friday's visit to Norwich City, unsettled Hojbjerg very much remains part of the picture according to Ralph Hasenhuettl.
"He was very professional. Understands it absolutely," Hassenhuettl said of the player who last month told German media he wanted to play at what he described as a higher level.
"We wanted to make a clear decision before the first game. That’s the reason why we made the decision very quickly. It’s absolutely understandable.
"If you want to be the captain, the leader of the team, you must be someone who is also here next season. If this is unlikely we must find another way to go."
Hojbjerg joined the Saints from Bayern Munich in 2016. He has most recently been linked with a move to Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
For now, though, he has a job to do at Southampton.
"He is a fantastic player... is in fantastic shape and is really hungry to play the best possible season for us for the last nine games.," Hassenhuettl said.
"He is a good example of professionalism. This is the reason why I have no problem with using him."
Southampton sit 14th in the table on 34 points from 29 matches, 13 points above bottom side Norwich.
Hasenhuettl says he thinks Saints can get 21 more points from their remaining nine fixtures, and is looking forward to the new Ward-Prowse leadership.
"He knows with his attitude and his passion that he (is) quite the role model for how we want to play and how we want to live in this club," he said.
"That's why it was an easy decision for me to say, 'Right, this guy shows everything that Southampton is about'."
(Reporting by Ossian Shine; Editing by Ken Ferris)