By Charlie Eccleshare and Mark Carey, The Athletic
It came after his side had edged past the Czech Republic 2-1 on Saturday, and he was quickly engulfed by the embrace of his team-mates.
The win continued Denmark’s extraordinary resurgence after a devastating start to the tournament, which has taken them all the way to a semi-final against England on Wednesday night.
Hojbjerg’s reaction was largely about two people who weren’t there. One was Christian Eriksen, who the team are desperate to honour after his shocking cardiac arrest during Denmark’s opening game against Finland. Hojbjerg had sat next to Eriksen when the team settled down to dinner the night before the game. With no idea of what was to come, the pair laughed and discussed the forthcoming Finland match as they ate at the Marienlyst hotel in Helsingor, around 45km north of Copenhagen. Subsequently, the seat next to Hojbjerg has been left empty for team meals out of respect for Eriksen.
The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder was also one of the people Hojbjerg consulted before agreeing to join Spurs last summer.
The other person in Hojbjerg’s thoughts, and someone who is almost always at the forefront of his mind, was his father. Christian, an anthropology professor, and his son were extremely close until he died of stomach cancer seven years ago. As an 18-year-old, Hojbjerg could only afford to pay for his dad’s chemotherapy by breaking into the Bayern Munich first team and securing appearance bonuses. On Saturday, once Hojbjerg had gathered himself he spoke to Danish media and looked into the camera as he explained that he was fighting so hard for his family and his fans. And it’s often the big moments when Hojbjerg most longs for his father.
“Where the grief hit me the most was when I scored my first goal for the national team (against Armenia in September 2014),” he said in an extraordinarily open interview on the Nordic Entertainment Group’s Sat Af programme in 2019. “If I could only share it with one person it would have been my father. Just a second. A high five. A hug. I don’t care. I felt a knot in my stomach. I couldn’t be happy in the weeks and months that followed. I just couldn’t relax and be happy.”
After interviews like these, seeing Hojbjerg so emotional on Saturday was not a huge surprise to his compatriots. He is extremely open about his feelings, and has collapsed into tears after a game before. Back in 2015, he was overwhelmed by the emotion of winning a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier at home against Serbia. After all, it had been just a few miles away at the hospital where his dad was undergoing chemotherapy that Christian told his son that one day he would play at the Parken Stadium for his country. As he conducted his post-match interview and thought about his dad’s words, Hojbjerg couldn’t hold back the tears.
The man who interviewed him that night remembers the potency of the moment. “Seeing his emotion will always stay with me. It was incredibly powerful,” says Kian Fonoudi, Discovery Networks’ pitchside reporter for the Danish national team. “The public admired it a lot. Because the relationship was a bit distant between the crowd and players at that time. But here they could see that Pierre was human.
“So I was not surprised when it came on Saturday, in fact I was thinking all tournament: when would it come? When it did, it melted everyone’s heart. Everyone was so open to that because it was a reflection of how we all felt. Relief, happiness, sorrow, all the things we feel from time to time. I felt very emotional watching it. I was close to tears.”
In so many ways it’s been a huge tournament for Hojbjerg. Still only 25, he has emerged as one of the leaders of his national team in exceptionally trying circumstances, three years after he was dropped for the World Cup in Russia. And he is one of the most popular players with the Danish public, who relish the extent to which he wears his heart on his sleeve. “Pierre is on the way to becoming a great hero in Denmark,” says Mads Wehlast, a football journalist for Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet, who has covered the national team for 25 years.
There is a sense that Hojbjerg’s emotional intelligence has been more valued and important than ever in the wake of what happened to Eriksen.
On the pitch, Hojbjerg has demonstrated how quickly he is improving as a player — providing three assists in the group stage in a role that allows him to both defend and attack. The data shows that he is being given a much greater licence to get forward than in the season just gone at Spurs, underlining how he has stepped up as an Eriksen replacement in midfield as well as helping to make up for his lost leadership in the dressing room.
This is how Hojbjerg has gone from outsider to helping to inspire a nation.
Hojbjerg is said to be “super happy” as he prepares for Wednesday’s semi-final. It’s not just that he and the team have performed so well, but also how close the squad have become under head coach Kasper Hjulmand. As well as being a very impressive tactician, Hjulmand encouraged the players to show their emotions after Eriksen’s collapse and this has helped to forge a sensational team spirit.
The celebrations, not just on Saturday, but during the group stage matches against Belgium and Russia, as well as after beating Wales in the last-16 stage are testament to that.
Hojbjerg has become a key member of the dressing room, and really stepped up since Eriksen’s collapse. Sources in Denmark say he is effectively third in command after the totemic pair of Kasper Schmeichel and Simon Kjaer. It was not always the case though, with a different generation of players actually reacting privately with some scepticism to Hojbjerg’s revealing interview after the Serbia win in 2015. Six years on, the picture is very different: now there is a head coach, group of players, and a nation at large fully willing to embrace the team’s emotional transparency.
If they spring another surprise to beat England and reach Sunday’s final, to which UEFA has invited Eriksen and the parademics who saved him, it is likely Hojbjerg would have been a deciding factor.
Back home, there are many experts who see Hojbjerg, perhaps aside from left wing-back Joakim Maehle, as Denmark’s standout performer over the last few weeks. “I think you can see that under Pep Guardiola (his manager at Bayern Munich) he learned a lot, is very smart, and his positioning is excellent,” says one-time Denmark and Derby County midfielder Morten Bisgaard, who until recently was the assistant head coach of the Danish under-17s.
“As a former midfielder, I do follow him especially closely, watching his decision-making with things like pressing. Does he leave his area? Does he stay and cover the centre-back? He’s a very intelligent player, who makes very few positional errors.
“Distribution-wise, he’s exceptionally good in phase one and is taking more responsibility.
“It’s difficult to find something to say that’s negative, apart from sometimes his temperament and emotions can mean he reacts angrily to a perceived injustice, but generally he uses that in a positive way. And in that sense, the perception in Denmark of Pierre as sometimes being distracted when things go wrong has changed — and maybe he has changed.
“Physically he’s had to do a lot of running without the ball in a central midfield pair but he has played every minute, whereas his partner, Thomas Delaney, has been taken off in every game. He’s a monster.”
This level of relentlessness will be familiar to Tottenham fans. Hojbjerg featuring for the entirety of the Euros follows him not missing a minute of Premier League action last season (James Ward-Prowse was the only other midfielder to play every minute).
Spurs fans took quickly to Hojbjerg’s passionate displays (Photo: Richard Calver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
It’s a remarkable level of durability and doesn’t appear to have reduced his efficiency. Hojbjerg has maintained the level during Euro 2020 that so endeared him to Spurs fans last season, even if his role for the national team is different to the one he enjoys at club level.
Hojbjerg has always enjoyed playing in a position more advanced than the holding role. The son of a French mother, his idol growing up was Zinedine Zidane, and he was initially viewed in Denmark as a No 10, which was where he played in the 2015 Under-21 European Championship. Last October, after Hojbjerg pulled off a double pirouette in a Europa League game against LASK Linz, his then-head coach Jose Mourinho joked that: “We were having a laugh at half-time and we were all calling him Zidane. Very nice but don’t do it again, Pierre!”
“When I started as a senior I wasn’t the best in defence, and didn’t put my all into tackling and winning the ball back,” Hojbjerg himself said in 2019. “Now, when I see my stats, some of my best, besides passing, are actually interceptions and ball recovery.
“I feel that I’m a tactical option, but really it’s about what type of match it is. If it’s an open match I’d say No 8, if it is more closed I like to move back and set up the play.”
The latter is where Hojbjerg has predominantly played for Spurs — usually in a 4-2-3-1 as a defensive midfielder. At Euro 2020, he has moved to more of a central position, and after losing Eriksen, Denmark have switched from a back four to primarily playing a 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 with Hojbjerg on the right of a middle two alongside Delaney.
Consequently, you can see from his touch map that he is further up the pitch — more in the middle third (and towards the right as you’d expect)…
…and less in his own third protecting the back four as he has been for Spurs.
With just 450 minutes played in Euro 2020, it’s a very small sample size but we can see more attacking intent from Hojbjerg. As much as 16 per cent of Denmark’s chances have come from him — the most of any player in their squad.
Hojbjerg has also posted three assists so far in the tournament, more than anyone in the group stages, and bettered in the tournament only by Switzerland’s Steven Zuber (four). This after managing four assists across 38 games in the Premier League for Spurs last season. He really has stepped up to fill the creative void left by Eriksen’s absence.
The underlying numbers also reflect this difference between Hojbjerg at international level compared to Tottenham On average, 9.9 per cent of his touches were in the final third for Spurs last season. For Denmark, that has almost doubled to 19.4 per cent.
The passes he makes are also more progressive. For Spurs, 32 per cent of his passes went forward last season, compared to 38 per cent for Denmark — again showing more intent to advance the play.
This is something that is important to Hojbjerg, who does not like the interpretation that his consistently high passing accuracy means he is conservative in his distribution. Bisgaard remembers asking him a few years ago about the balance of keeping the ball with playing more risky passes that carry a greater reward. Bisgaard had not meant the question as a slight, but Hojbjerg prickled at the perceived inference that he liked to play it safe. His wondrous clip from deep in his own half that set up a very presentable first-half chance against the Czech Republic on Saturday is evidence of his impressive passing range.
As well as priding himself on his distribution, a big part of what sets Hojbjerg apart is his work off the ball. Again it’s worth noting the small sample size, but at Euro 2020, he looks to be less combative in the challenge for Denmark than for Spurs last season. After adjusting for possession, Hojbjerg’s 8.5 true tackles (taking in tackles, challenges lost and fouls) per 1,000 opponent touches was in the top 20 per cent of defensive/central midfielders with 900-plus minutes in the Premier League last season. For Denmark, he is putting a foot in less often — only 2.8 true tackles per 1,000 opponent touches.
The differing numbers reflect Hojbjerg’s versatility, and open up the possibility of him playing a slightly modified role for Spurs next season. Should youngster Oliver Skipp not be loaned out again, Hojbjerg may be given a greater licence to get forward.
In the immediate term, the sense in Denmark is that the Hojbjerg-Delaney axis is one area where they may have superiority over England, up against Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice. Hojbjerg in particular is seen as one of the few Danish players who on paper would get into the England side.
It’s been a tournament that has showcased to his compatriots just how good Hojbjerg is.
“Emotionally, Pierre has been popular since that interview in 2015,” Fonoudi, the man who spoke to him that night, says. “Many fans felt they could relate to him. But football-wise, it’s this tournament that has made people realise his technical attributes and his passing skills. It’s been a turning point football-wise — he’s been important before but this is another level.
“He’s the centrepiece of its mechanics and the emotional heartbeat of the team.”
But Hojbjerg was not always so easily accepted within the Danish set-up. His openness struck a chord with the public, but internally, the culture was a bit different.
In 2015, the mentality among many of the older guard was to not show weakness and vulnerability. The captain at the time was Daniel Agger, whose reputation was as an uncompromising, physically robust centre-back. When a 19-year-old Hojbjerg spoke so frankly after that Serbia win six years ago, some in the team bristled at the fact that qualification for Euro 2016 had not been secured and viewed the interview as a loss of focus. “Within the team, those tears fell onto a barren ground,” says one source.
Hojbjerg leaves the pitch alone and in tears after Denmark’s win over Serbia in 2015 (Photo: Lars Ronbog / FrontZoneSport via Getty Images)
The perception of Hojbjerg as an outsider became more entrenched over the next couple of years. Senior team-mates, used to a more hierarchical model, did not appreciate the way this youngster would bark orders at them and refuse to stand on ceremony. He had also left Denmark at a young age to join Bayern Munich. With the slight French twang to his accent, the obvious intelligence inherited from his academic father and the quirk of sometimes slipping into French, German or English, he was viewed as a bit different. Arrogant even — at odds with the Danish culture of “Janteloven”, where the emphasis should be on the collective, not the individual.
Hojbjerg’s outspokenness did not sit well with the then head coach Age Hareide, and the midfielder was soon sent into international exile. After reacting angrily to being substituted in a 1-0 loss to Montenegro in October 2016, Hojbjerg did not play for the national team for two years and missed the 2018 World Cup. “Pierre had his own thoughts about how we do things and I wasn’t happy about that,” Hareide said after the Montenegro defeat.
Hojbjerg was extremely hurt at missing the World Cup, but channelled it into performing as well as he could for Southampton, for whom he was appointed captain in 2018 at 23. “The greatest acknowledgement I got in football was being made captain,” Hojbjerg said a year later. “Because at one point there was some talk about me having a bad attitude and not being a team player. I had trouble fitting in on a team.”
Since returning to the Danish side soon after the World Cup, Hojbjerg has established himself as one of the team’s key players.
The culture in 2021 is entirely different to the one a young Hojbjerg walked into when he was starting out with the national team. Rather than stay quiet and try to appear tough, the new head coach Hjulmand has encouraged his players to embrace their feelings after Eriksen’s collapse. Hjulmand cried himself as he addressed the media after the Finland game and has spoken about the way in which events like these stir up feelings in people that sit just below the surface. Because in the Danish team, it’s not just Hojbjerg who lost his father early — Yussuf Poulsen and Mathias Jorgensen suffered the same tragedy. Hjulmand, with remarkable eloquence and empathy, said that everyone in the group was having to manage their grief and personal trauma, and that their feelings were all being put into an emotional mixer.
We saw this with Hojbjerg’s reaction on Saturday, and some in Denmark suggest it’s almost as if, post-Eriksen, the rest of the nation has caught up with his emotional literacy.
Because Hojbjerg has never been afraid to show how he really feels, and has been open, for instance, about how he has worked with a life coach for years. In that remarkable interview with Sat Af two years ago, he revealed how after the torment of seeing his dad suffer he had “cried like a baby” when his daughter Rosa was born in 2017. He also has a remarkable capacity for empathy, as an exchange with Fonoudi a few years ago demonstrates.
“In Denmark, the players can meet up with the reporters and it’s very open. Before COVID-19, we might speak one on one for an hour,” Fonoudi explains, recalling a conversation that happened in 2019 before Denmark’s 6-0 win over Gibraltar.
“He spoke so freely about his father’s illness and how he had broken down in front of Guardiola. When I told him I had also lost my father, he tried to be comforting, and he said, ‘Your father lives on through you and your kids’.
“It was pretty amazing. I’m 37 and he’s much younger. I was thinking, ‘Kid, you’re 24, I’m supposed to be saying this kind of stuff to you!’. But he’s not afraid of using that kind of rhetoric, he’s an old soul.”
“The supporters love his emotion,” adds Bisgaard. “They appreciate his openness and crying on the pitch only made him more popular. We’re not the most emotional people typically. It’s not that usual that players show their emotions, but everybody loves it.
“It’s great that players dare to open up and show vulnerability — they’re not superhumans. They’ve won everyone’s hearts.”
Hojbjerg has been front and centre of that and repeatedly stepped up to take responsibility during Euro 2020. It was Hojbjerg who took the penalty against Finland in Eriksen’s absence when no one else felt strong enough. He missed, but no one, apart from Hojbjerg himself, has had anything remotely critical to say about the miss.
He was also one of the players put forward to address the media a couple of days after Eriksen’s cardiac arrest. It says a lot about how he is viewed and how quickly he has become one of the leaders in the dressing room.
It’s the same at Tottenham where he instantly showed his commitment and intensity when joining the club last summer. Mourinho called him his “captain without the armband” and said in December that: “He is going to be a coach one day, for sure. He is a pain (in training), always asking questions about why we do this and that.”
Even as a 10-year-old playing for local club Skjold, “he was willing to be taught a lot of things, and always wanted to learn,” his first coach Thomas Jensen told The Athletic last year.
“He is one of the most serious players I’ve ever seen,” says one well-placed source. “I’ve never seen someone like him in all my life.”
At Wembley on Wednesday night, Hojbjerg will take that intensity to the city where he now lives as he looks to demonstrate just how much he has improved since moving there a year ago.
But whatever the result, Hojbjerg will not shy away from showing precisely how he feels. On and off the pitch this tournament, he has been the rock that Denmark has needed.