Before Southampton had kicked off their crunch fixture at home to Everton on November 26, 2017, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg had played just six minutes of Premier League football under Mauricio Pellegrino. Unfathomable, unintelligent and simply unjustifiable… these are just a few of the words that sprung to my mind with regards to Pellegrino’s blatant dislike towards Højbjerg.
Skip forward two months later and our favourite dynamic Danish midfielder had just played a vital part in recording our first win in ten fixtures against Fulham in the FA Cup. But as the visibly knackered and worn midfielder left the field of play, it was followed by a chorus of boos and chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” chants to Pellegrino – ironically, I think Pellegrino was right to substitute him and save him for the Premier League fixtures, but that’s beside the point.
Pierre-Emile Højbjerg has quickly become a fan favourite, netting his first Southampton goal last weekend against Wigan in the FA Cup, under Mark Hughes. At just 22 years old, he is one of the most well-rounded midfielders I’ve seen for a long while – he’s a dominant tackler with a strong physique, phenomenal passing range, and the ability to drive the ball forward. Not to mention his mentality and intelligence that surpasses many of his colleagues, and his sheer captain-like presence that we’ve been missing in hard times.
To say that Pellegrino limited Højbjerg would be an understatement; not only did he have to overcome the issue of rarely starting or being played outside of his natural position, but he also had to combat the fact that our midfield was banished from displaying expansive and creative football.
However, despite having yet to register a Premier League assist or goal this season, he still averages close to 50 passes per game (48.7 to be exact), with a pass completion percentage of 87.3%, 2.1 long balls per game, and 0.5 key passes per game. Whilst those statistics may not stand-out as world-class at this moment in time, we have to take these in relative terms. This is an extremely young talent who needs the nurturing and guidance to push him higher, he needs more game-time and a manager who will glean the best from him; step up new Southampton manager, Mark Hughes.
My hopes for Pierre-Emile Højbjerg are relatively simple: to become Southampton’s current deep-lying playmaker, and within the next couple of years, to become Southampton’s captain. His mentality and attitude, coupled with his outstanding technical footballing ability at such a young age can only pave a very bright future path for him.
He has a relationship with the St Mary’s faithful which has not been matched by many for a few years: we are never short of tweets, songs or articles that praise him. He was one of the first of the senior team to step up and shoulder blame for our disgraceful performances under Pellegrino – most notably his post-match interview after the 3-0 drubbing to Newcastle.
He has the skill-set to keep players like Oriol Romeu and Mario Lemina out of the team, and in my opinion, Højbjerg should be considered one of Southampton Football Club’s prized asset – he has an extremely bright footballing future and has the necessary mental capacity to become a club captain. So what next?
We already know that Hughes has a huge job on his hands to keep the Saints in the Premier League for another season, but when it comes to getting the best out of Højbjerg, I’m hopeful that Sparky can do exactly that.
Pierre gave an interview after the Wigan win in which he praised our new manager’s mentality and expectancy of player performances. A manager in the mould of Hughes, who’s already expressed his desire to deploy football of a higher intensity with greater freedom, will surely enable the likes of Højbjerg to excel and become one of the first names on the team sheet. A manager like Hughes, who has won everything as a player, will also (with great hope) be able to mirror and improve the young Dane’s mentality, and hone him to become even more of a captain-like figure than he already is.
“I think I speak on everyone’s behalf when I say it has been positive,” said Højbjerg, speaking to Southampton’s official website.
“It is a new impulse, new energy, good vibes, a fresh start. He worked a lot on intensity and discipline, and the desire to go the extra yards as individuals and as a team. The coach said before the game today the key would be mentality, desire and hard work because he knew that we had the quality.”
In Hughes and Højbjerg, we could find a brilliant manager-player partnership that helps us to excel and form a new leader at Southampton Football Club over the next eight Premier League fixtures.
Club legends such as Rickie Lambert, Claus Lundekvam and more similarly to Højbjerg, Morgan Schneiderlin, had a number of traits in common. It goes without saying that they all boasted a wealth of talent, but most importantly, they had the desire to lead by example and always look to improve. To never accept the levels that they’re currently performing at, and to make sure that their teammates are on board too.
If we stay up – and that’s one massive ‘if’ – then we need to forget the past 18 months of failure and rebuild the same philosophies and values that got us into the Premier League in the first place. And I can confidently say that if we have any hope of doing so, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg will be right at the heart of it as our catalyst for change.