With two goals in two games, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is the man of the moment in the Saints midfield. Tactics writer Sam Tighe assesses his growing influence in the red and white stripes...
Every club has that one player. The one the fans have faith in, the one everyone knows is incredibly talented, but for one reason or another it’s just not coming together for them.
The affinity fans feel for that player means that when they do find their groove and start performing, the reward is that much greater. Each performance means a little more – you’re a bit more proud of it while stood in the stands – and every goal tastes even sweeter.
For Southampton, that player is Pierre-Emile Højbjerg.
He’s sparked into life this season, winning a spot in Mark Hughes’ first-choice central midfield alongside Mario Lemina, starting the last three league games and scoring in two of them. He’s been at the club since the beginning of the 2016/17 season, but it’s only now, in this third campaign on the south coast, that the pieces are really starting to snap together for him.
His mini-rise has perhaps been accentuated by the goal he scored on Monday against Brighton & Hove Albion – a true thunderbolt, cleanly struck from long range, that started outside the post and bent inwards in a frankly Roberto Carlos-like fashion.
It was a goal that stole all of the focus, but his all-round performance deserves just as much praise.
Deployed in a clear midfield two in Southampton’s flexible 4-4-2, Højbjerg’s (and Lemina’s) workload is pretty heavy. They’re required to deal with pressure in dangerous areas on the ball and they often face a numerical disadvantage – a three vs two – as Danny Ings stays fairly high up during the build-up phase.
The bravery and physicality Højbjerg must show when receiving the ball in tight areas is impressive. We’ve come to expect it from Lemina, but the Dane is showing fresh layers to his game and an improved ability to make the correct decisions while warding off would-be tacklers.
There was a ten-minute spell against Brighton in the first half where Southampton had them hemmed into their own third, and every time the ball popped out from defence, Højbjerg won it and shoved it back in. Davy Pröpper and co. were powerless to stop him winning it, recycling it and then doing it again.
These parts to his game won’t go unnoticed among the Saints faithful, but his goals will help him gain recognition on a wider scale. His strike against Crystal Palace iced Saints’ first three-point haul of the season, while the strike against Brighton was an opener. Not only is he scoring, but the goals are coming at key times.
Goalscoring is an element Højbjerg has always lacked in his game – these two strikes mean one more sets a personal league scoring record for him – and he’s chosen a great time to brush up on that particular skill. Southampton need his piercing long shots just as much as his vocal, commanding, gritty midfield showings.
He’s fast becoming the complete midfielder, and one that could prove integral to Southampton’s fortunes from here on.