Around an hour into Tottenham’s game against Chelsea at Wembley, Christian Eriksen did something highly irregular. Eriksen is usually one of Tottenham’s least impetuous players, but here he gave away a scrappy foul in the centre circle, and as the whistle blew, charged after referee Martin Atkinson, arms outstretched, pleading his case. Nor was he prepared to let the matter go: for a full half-minute he tried to engage Atkinson in further discussion, eventually stalking away with a sulky shake of the head.
The match was still level at 2-2, but in retrospect it was possible to see it as a liminal moment in a semi-final that could genuinely have gone to either team. For the last half-hour, Eriksen was buzzing, and not in a good way. He made no key passes between the 60th and 90th minutes, the period during which the game was essentially won and lost. And at the same time as Eriksen was making his impassioned appeal to Atkinson, Chelsea were making their decisive double substitution, bringing on Eden Hazard and Diego Costa.
The point here is not to chastise Eriksen, whose performance in a losing cause would have made him a worthy man-of-the-match but simply to underline the extent to which Eriksen dictates not just Tottenham’s tempo, but their mood. At his best, Eriksen is the ice in Tottenham’s veins, a crucial function in a team that still occasionally struggles with its emotions. His own game is based on a very detached, almost scientific kind of brilliance.
Never was this more apparent than with his exquisite wormhole-assist for Dele Alli’s goal, the sort of pass that seems to operate by its own laws of physics.
Maturity is not simply a function of age. Eriksen has always seemed wise beyond his years. This is a player, after all, who had played in a World Cup and the Champions League before his 19th birthday. Now, at 25, he is that rarest of gems at the highest level: a genuine big-game player. In the last two seasons, he has scored or assisted against Chelsea, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs. At Wembley on Saturday, Chelsea’s front three completed 43 passes during the entire game. Eriksen made 48 passes into the final third alone, as well as assisting both Tottenham goals. When his level dropped late in the game, Tottenham’s dropped with it.
All of which feeds into a broader narrative of improvement, development, sharpening to a point. Eriksen has added muscle mass, lost body fat, added aggression, lost the occasional tendency to disappear not just from games, but from entire months. In the same way that Victor Wanyama has become Tottenham’s defensive enforcer, Eriksen performs the same job further up the pitch: finding space between the lines, directing play, shutting down counter-attacks, like a sort of RoboCop of the final third.
Yet it has taken a good while for Eriksen’s gifts to find a wider appreciation. Last week Eriksen was deemed unworthy not just of a place in the Premier League team of the season, but from the unofficial secondary list of players deemed unlucky to have missed out. Manchester United fans howled about the omission of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Arsenal fans Alexis Sánchez, Manchester City fans David Silva. Tottenham fans seemed more perturbed by the absence of Toby Alderweireld than the man who has participated in a quarter of their goals this season. This, perhaps, reflects English football’s preference for blood and guts over cold brain.
For much of his time in England Eriksen has been regarded as an interesting ornament, a decorative frieze: yes, very nice, but what does it do exactly?
There are parallels here with a player Eriksen regards as the best in the world in his position. In a way, Eriksen is Tottenham’s Andre Iniesta; its quiet architect, its softly beating heart, its tempo and its temperature.
If reports from Spain are to be believed, he might yet become Barcelona’s Iniesta one day. But for now, and even in defeat, Saturday felt like another modest stride forward. If Tottenham are finally to smash the glass ceiling, it will be with Eriksen at the helm: a player who somehow makes all the other parts of the machine work just a little better.