Christian Eriksen looks like a children’s television presenter and, in another lifetime, his handsome, unthreatening features would have been right at home alongside puppeted animals and over-sugared excitement.
As a young player, Eriksen often exuded that same sandbrushed perfection. Domestic audiences became aware of him properly in 2011, when he illuminated a losing Danish friendly performance against England. The British press had trooped to Copenhagen in giddy anticipation of Jack Wilshere starting for Fabio Capello’s team, but returned with glowing reports of his opposite man that night.
Eriksen was the straight arrow, headed right for the top. He was also everything that has come to be expected of any midfielder who has spent his formative years at Ajax: a beautiful footballer, with the joyful passing and light touch which has often appeared standard issue in the Amsterdam Arena.
“Eriksen was not able to control the game and therefore we blame him. It’s a brutal world, otherwise you have to play at another level. He is not playing for Ajax any more, he has not developed. If he was a player at a lower level, one could say that he has no class. But it is Christian Eriksen. We must be tough and say it to him. He must stand up to the criticism.” Morten Olssen
In 2011, after his side had won that season’s Eredivisie, he was named Dutch football’s Talent of the Year, an award won previously by Arjen Robben, Clarence Seedorf and Dennis Bergkamp, and the late Johan Cruyff would remark that Eriksen was the “typical product of the Danish school. You can compare him with Brian and Michael Laudrup. Only time will tell if Eriksen can reach the same level as them.”
Cruyff was likely drawing a comparison in stature rather than style, but it was evidently burdensome. Between 2011 and 2013, Eriksen’s stock faded and the perennial gossip column links with the Champions League glitterati became more sporadic. By 2012, he had announced that he would not being renewing his contract with Ajax and with the club’s negotiating position weakened, a transfer scramble seemed likely to determine his future.
It never materialised and, in the season following his eventual, low-key move to Tottenham, it became evident why.
In those early days under Andre Villas-Boas, Eriksen conformed to every pejorative association that exists around the Eredivisie – and particularly to players who shine for its dominant clubs. He was gifted, but physically weak: a player capable of illuminating a game for twenty minutes, but who would then succumb to the arduous English pace and endure long spells of anonymity.
Of course, it didn’t help that Spurs themselves were a mess and that Eriksen’s first year coincided with Tim Sherwood’s coup d’etat. But while his goal return survived the acrimony (and an early injury), he would often struggle for influence – particularly in high-paced games, particularly against sides who were technically equal or superior to his own.
It would be convenient if all of those struggles were ended with Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival in North London. Regrettably, that wasn’t the case and, in its impact, his 2014/15 season was much the same as his first at the club. Pochettino brought a punishing conditioning program with him to White Hart Lane and the cumulative fatigue created by that adjustment blunted Eriksen more than most.
Perhaps it would also be fair to claim that, of all the players to have survived Pochettino’s periodic purges, Eriksen has had to adjust the most to avoid being exiled. It’s common to praise the improved elements within the contemporary side, most notably the development of both full-backs, the rise of Moussa Dembele, and the exponential growth of collective resilience, but those changes really represent conformation rather than revolution. By contrast, Eriksen has had to develop habits which neither came easily to him nor were necessarily compatible with his body type. He was built to be the Scandinavian Pablo Aimar, not a hard-running midfielder.
When he was initially signed by Tottenham, it was to play as a pure Number 10: a sit-and-create outlet upon whom little physical burden was supposed to fall. Under Pochettino, however, he has been required to not only sit deeper when the team are in possession, but to also be in the vanguard of the high-press. With the exception of those raiding’ full-backs, none of Spurs’s players are required to cover as much ground at such intensity. And in the overall sense, nobody in that current side has the same breadth of responsibility: Eriksen’s role still encompasses creativity, of course, but just not to the exclusion of other, more mundane duties. He remains a connecting piece between the forward line and the midfield, but much of his link play now occurs in the middle third of the pitch, too.
Back in 2014, Eriksen was famously – brutally – criticised by Danish coach Morten Olssen after his side lost a Euro 2016 qualifier against Portugal.
“Eriksen was not able to control the game and therefore we blame him. It’s a brutal world, otherwise you have to play at another level. He is not playing for Ajax any more, he has not developed. If he was a player at a lower level, one could say that he has no class. But it is Christian Eriksen. We must be tough and say it to him. He must stand up to the criticism.”
“Control” is perhaps the word to note, because that is the very quality which has recently flowered within his game. Eriksen may not have become a striding colossus, but since late 2016 he has really become Tottenham’s attacking heartbeat; a player who still shoulders the responsibility for splitting defences, but one who also helps maneuver the side into position to take advantage of that kind of pass. Consider, for instance, his role in the second goal against Burnley ten days ago and his involvement in all three scored at the Liberty Stadium last Wednesday night. But pair those moments, in those specific games and beyond, with the regularity with which he carried the ball up the field or took possession from a deeper-lying player.
But there is a psychological aspect to this, too. For a long time, Eriksen was condemned to live the up-and-down life of the playmaker: rising and falling with the success of the side around him. As recently as six months ago, his lethargic performances (and background contract negotiations) temporarily rendered him a deeply unpopular figure with his club’s fanbase. Even now, when his level of performance has risen to an unprecedented level, White Hart Lane will still murmur with discontent at the first hint of imperfection.
Eriksen is a highly resilient character. Behind those boyish looks lies an impermeable character able to withstand criticism and retaliate to it. Eriksen is never too up or too down, and his post-match interviews betray an ulta professionalism which mirrors his on-pitch monotone; he receives the ball, passes the ball and, whether one-nil up or two-nil down, his expression never seems to change. Perhaps that’s part of his armoury? He has been subjected to the ire of his nation and has suffered a forceful re-categorisation of his talent by the community at large, but these career troughs never seem to draw an emotional response. In fact, quite the reverse: the greater the criticism he receives, the more receptive he becomes to reinvention.
That kind of humility is rare enough in civilian life, but in professional football it’s absolutely precious.
Beyond the day-to-day concerns about form and league tables, there’s something deeply admirable to the way he’s conducted his career – to how he’s handled the audible scorn and how positively he’s been able to react to it. At a time when the modern player seems incapable of tolerating little beyond outright sycophancy, he stands as a rather novel counterpoint. He’s Pochettino’s soft clay: he’s been kneaded and twisted in half-a-dozen different ways in barely three season and yet, still, retains the firmness of his texture.
Trying to separate Tottenham into their individual parts is to misunderstand what they are and how they’ve been constructed, but there really isn’t a player who characterises their rebirth more vividly than Christian Eriksen. He embodies the perpetual state of evolution which now surrounds this team, but also the capacity for change and improvement which has greased the gears on this journey.