In his days as a serial champion, Jose Mourinho used to be defined by his own position at the top of a table.
In the construction of his teams, he likes to have what he terms a “positional midfielder.” Others might call it a defensive midfielder or a No 6. Whichever, Tottenham have lacked a quintessential Mourinho ball-winning midfielder, his modern-day Claude Makelele or Costinha.
Until now, perhaps. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s signing from Southampton should rectify the greatest shortcoming in the Spurs squad.
Eric Dier prefers to play in defence these days and has not really excelled in midfield for two seasons. Victor Wanyama’s January departure was rather overlooked, but he never recaptured the form he showed in his stellar 2016-17 in arguably Mauricio Pochettino’s best team.
The common denominator among Tottenham’s very different central midfielders, from Harry Winks to Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso to Moussa Sissoko, is that none wants to be the most defensive presence in the heart of the team. Each would rather be the No 8 than the No 6.
Hojbjerg would not. He sees himself as a facilitator, a worker who can let others play. "My biggest strength is making other players better,” he told the Football Ramble podcast.
“Supporting them, playing the right balls, doing the right runs, fighting for them, feeding them, analysing the game, reading the game.
"Of course, I have qualities but to be the guy who brings the team together to get the best out of everyone is what I really feel very comfortable in and strong in."
Such words might be music to Mourinho’s ears. He has long liked footballers willing to sacrifice themselves for a greater cause. “Mainly it’s about responsibility,” said Hojbjerg, and a demonstration of his willingness to assume it came last autumn.
Southampton’s 9-0 defeat to Leicester was a historic low. The fixture list gave them back-to-back trips to Manchester City and their only specialist left-back Ryan Bertrand was suspended. Hojbjerg slotted in selflessly.
It is no surprise he has the skill-set to be versatile. Hojbjerg became a protégé of Pep Guardiola when the Catalan became Bayern Munich manager.
“It has taken just a couple of training sessions for him to fall in love with the player,” wrote Marti Perarnau in Pep Confidential. That affection did not translate to regular starts in a talent-packed Bayern team.
If Hojbjerg was then billed as Guardiola’s new Sergio Busquets, such predictions were never quite realised. “I had him a bit too early in my career,” Hojbjerg reflected in 2018.
He became something else instead and if he has now crossed the great divide from Guardiola to Mourinho, a third manager has significance.
Ralph Hasenhuttl was quick to make the Dane captain – he stripped him of the armband in June when it became apparent he would not sign a new contract and wanted a move – but Southampton’s all-action, front-foot football is more in tune with the footballing Zeitgeist.
Does Hojbjerg’s arrival suggest Mourinho is trying to move with the times, to play a more upbeat brand of football?
Certainly the centre-backs should benefit from added cover and the more creative midfielders from a supply line.
And yet it is also about a fourth manager. Carlo Ancelotti did not have enough pulling power to take Hojbjerg to Everton, whose wasteland of a midfield needed him even more than Spurs.
Everton’s mediocrity may have cost them the services of a target who could have alleviated it.
Tottenham are instead getting the man who regained possession in the Premier League last season. Mourinho should enjoy working with a man who relishes the ugly side of the game.