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Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg

Southampton, 2016–

With two and a half years spent as a youngster at Bayern Munich, where in the final 18 months he learned from Pep Guardiola, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg enjoyed a footballing education that is comparable with the best. Guardiola took a shine to the teenage Hojbjerg and wondered if the Dane could become Bayern’s answer to Sergio Busquets – who Guardiola coached at Barcelona – in defensive midfield.

Hojbjerg struggled to establish himself at Bayern, and so he looked elsewhere for first-team football. He has ended up playing a key role for Ralph Hassenhüttl’s Southampton, having been appointed captain by their former manager Mark Hughes – a captaincy he then lost as he searched for a move from St Mary’s. Everton, Tottenham and Manchester City – managed, of course, by Guardiola – are all reportedly interested in signing the midfielder, who appears set on a move to further his career.

Tactical analysis
Hojbjerg has proved versatile throughout his career, playing in a variety of midfield positions for Bayern and even filling in at both right-back and left-back on two occasions for Southampton in 2019/20. However, his best position – and where he has naturally settled – has always been in defensive midfield.

He has not developed, as Guardiola had once hoped, into a player of Busquets’ ability. Far from it, in fact – the Spaniard controls entire games by winning the ball and playing passes that dictate the pace of the match. Fizzed, direct balls to attackers that instantly increase the tempo of play; or a turn away from trouble and a pass to a teammate in space that can slow proceedings to a near-halt when looking to see out a win.

Hojbjerg has not been able to do that at Southampton, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t an effective defensive midfielder. He consistently breaks up play, with both good positioning and active attempts to win the ball. His reading of the game is his biggest strength, and he could still become a player capable of dominating games – something that would be far more achievable at a team that controls possession more than Hassenhüttl’s Southampton.

The Dane does his best work sitting in front of defence, protecting the centre-backs and waiting for his chance to eliminate danger. Guardiola was particularly impressed with the young Hojbjerg’s anticipation and his natural ability to foresee opportunities to win the ball, and that is a significant part of what makes him so useful at Southampton. Only three midfielders, Wilfred Ndidi, Oliver Norwood and teammate James Ward-Prowse, made more regains in the 2019/20 Premier League than Hojbjerg, who also started just 30 of Southampton’s 38 matches.

He makes intelligent decisions when anticipating the opposition’s threat, both when judging when to leave the midfield line to press (above) and when to hold his position to protect the middle of the pitch. He also does a similarly effective job during defensive transitions, in deciding when to counter-press and when to drop back into position. He prefers defending on the front foot in those scenarios to try and stop a counter-attack early on, and he is largely successful, though he has also occasionally left his team a little too open after pressing too enthusiastically.

Role at Southampton
Hojbjerg is capable of playing in a midfield two, having spent much of 2019/20 alongside Ward-Prowse in Southampton’s 4-4-2 formation. He is very disciplined with his positioning, and sits deep to free up his central midfield partner and their wide players to roam forward. He marshals Southampton’s midfield, keeping them compact and narrow when out of possession (below) before playing passes that allow that midfield to expand once the ball has been won.

There are also numerous occasions when Southampton’s central midfielders swap roles during games, in what is a more traditional way of playing with a 4-4-2 – the two alternate between going forward and sitting deep. Hojbjerg is an intelligent player who can adapt, depending on the opponent and what is asked of him by his manager, and he supports Southampton’s attacks when needed – even if he got forward less in 2019/20 than in previous seasons.

In possession, he shows a good sense of awareness and is regularly seen directing his teammates’ movements – his leadership qualities will have contributed to Hughes’ decision to make him Southampton’s captain. Receiving possession in defensive midfield means he rarely does so free from pressure, but he uses this to his advantage. He looks to receive vertical passes from central defence, to entice an opposition midfielder out of position, before bouncing a pass back into a defender. He then moves beyond his opponent, hoping to receive the next pass goal-side of that opponent and providing a crucial method for Southampton to progress play through central areas.

He has always been a tidy ball-player, but in 2019/20 was challenged by Hassenhüttl to be more adventurous, contributing to his pass completion rate dropping significantly compared to previously at Southampton, and even further from his time at Bayern. When Southampton have the ball they line up in a 2-4-4 structure in which their full-backs and wide midfielders push forwards. Hojbjerg holds his position, picks up possession from defence in front of the opposition’s midfield, and looks to progress play to their front four.

He therefore provides support to attacks and rarely moves ahead of play, offering a pass through which to recycle possession (above). This discipline allows their full-backs to advance and provide width to Southampton’s attacks, means he regularly receives passes while facing forwards, and, like Busquets, can maintain the pace of an attack by moving the ball quickly.

Clearly, comparisons with Busquets are a stretch – Hojbjerg is a good quality central midfielder who has some similar attributes to the Spaniard, but he has neither fulfilled his potential nor come close to achieving what Guardiola had hoped. He is regardless a simple, effective and extremely useful footballer, whose future lies at a higher level.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg

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