Over the last few years, the damage inflicted by the relentless bombardment of football upon its players has finally become a topic of serious conversation. The Covid-19 pandemic has only served to escalate these discussions; not only due to the health implications that accompany ‘long Covid’, but also due to the congested schedule of modern football having to be crammed into an even shorter timeframe.
When it became clear that the virus was a serious threat and governments started taking unprecedented action to curtail its spread, football ground to a halt. For the players, though, this silence was much more eerie than peaceful. Once the three or so month break was over, almost every league (except for non-professionals and French) had to get up and running again.
After all, broadcasters and sponsors need the revenue and advertising. And isn’t that what football is all about?
This meant that players had to lumber through two or more games a week, every week, to catch up on all the football they’d missed, finish the league season, then go off to the Euros, or the Olympics, or both (Pedri, my heart bleeds for you). And, of course, the world doesn’t stop moving, and the new season is upon us just as soon as the last one ends. All of this is to say, footballers are tired. Everyone is tired.
So, why Højbjerg? Why not talk about the borderline criminal failure to protect young Pedri? Did PEH even play all that much? Absolutely he did, more than you might remember. But we’ll get to that in a second.
As well as the pure mass of minutes, Højbjerg was saddled with responsibilities by Spurs boss Jose Mourinho and then his interim replacement Ryan Mason, as well as Denmark national team coach Kasper Hjulmand. Due to his quality and the shallow pool of depth in midfield at both club and national team level, he wasn’t just always in the team; he was also having to make up for some of his teammates’ shortcomings.
At Spurs, Højbjerg was chiefly responsible for both ball winning and ball progression. Moussa Sissoko isn’t great at either, and most of the time Tanguy Ndombele was playing further up the pitch, negating much of his carrying and passing to progress the ball – his greatest strength – and adding to Højbjerg’s burden. Last season, the Dane had more tackles, interceptions, pressures, passes attempted and progressive passes per 90 than both Sissoko and Ndombele.
How much did he actually play? For starters, he sits alongside James Ward-Prowse and Bruno Ecuele Manga as one of only three outfield players (four if you count Souček, who played 1 minute less) in the top four 38 match leagues (Bundesliga teams play 34) that was on the pitch for every single minute of their league campaign.
When taking all competitions into account, Højbjerg was just shy of playing more minutes than any other player in Europe’s top 5 leagues. He played a big part of Spurs’ efforts in three separate cup competitions as well as being pivotal to Denmark, playing in friendlies and the Nations League as well as, most notably, every minute during their run to the semis at the Euros. In total, this adds up to 5366 minutes, equivalent to 59.6 90s.
As this waffle plot shows, there was barely a minute for Højbjerg to rest during this jam-packed season. On only one occasion did he go a full week without playing a competitive match.
Denmark’s extra time defeat to England in the semi finals of the European Championship occurred on the 7th of July. Just shy of a month later he was back in action, playing 45 and 67 minutes respectively in friendlies against Chelsea and Arsenal before playing near enough the full match in a tireless 1–0 victory against Manchester City in the first Premier League match of the season. He had no rest during the season, and not much of a break before the next one rolled around.
Højbjerg played two seasons worth of minutes in a single compressed season. In an extremely demanding role. During the pandemic. With basically no rest. This begs the question, why aren’t Spurs recognising the intense strain he’s under and seeking to prevent burn out and an early retirement before it’s too late?
To be honest, we’re not talking about a club that has a respectable track record in this regard. The high profile example to draw on here would be Harry Kane, who has consistently been rushed back from recurring ankle injuries due to his importance and Spurs’ refusal to buy a competent backup striker. I’d prefer to look toward a couple of Højbjerg’s midfield predecessors for a cautionary tale.
Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama were one of the strongest midfield pairings in England, if not Europe. For two glorious years, Spurs fans enjoyed watching these two partner up in the middle of the park. They were both key members of the squad that took Spurs to 86 points and 2nd place in the Premier league in 2016/17, their best league showing since the double win in 1961. Not soon after, they each looked a shadow of their former selves. By the start of the 18/19 season, Dembele could hardly muster 45 minutes at a time and Wanyama looked way off the pace, nowhere close to the player that previously dominated opposition attackers.
Spurs would somehow reach the Champions League final in 2019, but neither would get on the pitch that day. Dembele had been sold to Guangzhou R&F in the preceding January, while Wanyama was slowly fading from the first team picture and would be sold to Montreal in early 2020. Two elite midfielders tapped out of elite level football in what should’ve been the prime of their careers; at the time of their transfers, Mousa was 31 and Victor was 29. Tottenham could’ve had Dembele and Wanyama bossing the midfield in a Champions League final. Instead, Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko took their places.
Neither Dembele nor Wanyama played even close to as much football in one season as Højbjerg did last year. Perhaps their bodies simply let them down, but it’s difficult not to assign some blame to Spurs, especially given Pochettino’s hesitance to make substitutes or rotate anyone that isn’t a fullback. Maybe Pierre is made of stronger stuff, but that doesn’t mean you should push his physical capabilities to their limits.
It’s difficult to be positive about Højbjerg’s burden being lessened looking forward; rather than a rotation option, the promising Oliver Skipp looks to be the Dane’s new partner, with the pair having started together in friendlies against Arsenal & Chelsea as well as the Premier League opener against City. Spurs and their supporters are even glorifying the unholy workload Højbjerg is taking on, and have nicknamed him ‘The Viking’. If Tottenham Hotspur aren’t careful, they’ll cut down yet another elite central midfielder as he enters what should be his peak years. And this time, there will be no ambiguity. They’ll only have themselves to blame.