As we prepare for the resumption of club football once more allow us to pose to you a question. If you were selecting the signing of the season within the Premier League so far who would you go for?
Perhaps you’re swayed by Ollie Watkins, the man whose goals have propelled Aston Villa to the top section of the table. Or how about Diogo Jota? He’s one of the primary reasons that the defending champions are where they are right now. You could certainly make an argument for a number of Chelsea’s new boys, from Thiago Silva and Ben Chilwell at the back to Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech further forward.
The reason we ask is that depending how many Tottenham Hotspur matches you have watched this season, one name that might not instantly spring to mind is that of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
The Danish midfielder joined Spurs over the summer for the relatively modest fee of around £15 million. At the time it was certainly a lauded move, but it got lost in the furore surrounding the late arrival of Gareth Bale from Real Madrid. Yet there’s an argument to be made that Hojbjerg has been one of the most influential players in the Premier League this season.
Hojbjerg is composed on the ball, excellent at reading the game and a fine tackler, in other words a perfect Premier League central midfielder. He has been integral to Spurs and an international break article by Spurs fan blog Hotspur Hive revealed that an astonishing 75% of Tottenham’s goals this season were started by either a tackle, interception or pass from the midfielder. As the article also points out no player has more passes in the league thus far and only five have more tackles.
New signing Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg of Tottenham Hotspur is unveiled by the club on August 11, 2020 in Enfield, England
Image credit: Getty Images
Yet over the summer it wasn’t even a sure thing that he would move to North London. There was reportedly serious interest from Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. That interest is long-standing. As documented in Marti Peranau’s book, Pep Confidential, the Catalan boss thought Hojbjerg could be his version of Sergio Busquets when the pair were together at Bayern Munich.
Injuries have dogged Hojbjerg’s career and this summer the reunion didn’t come to fruition. What’s more the fee was just £15 million as we have mentioned before, of which £12 million was offset in Southampton signing Kyle Walker-Peters. That is some way short of the £25 million Saints were reportedly demanding and the £35 million City were reportedly prepared to offer at one stage. Did City ever really show interest, or did they just turn their attention to other areas?
We will ultimately never know but Hojbjerg offers an interesting lesson when examining the transfer activity of the two sides. If you look at Tottenham’s best performers so far this season alongside Hojbjerg there’s plenty of bargains to be had; Son-Heung Min, Harry Kane and Eric Dier for example. One cost £22 million, one was an academy product and the other cost £4 million. That is a stark contrast to City, whose best performers nearly always cost at least £30 million, normally more. This summer alone they spent in the region of £100m on two centre-backs, Nathan Ake and Ruben Dias.
There are differences of course. Phil Foden being a notable example. Secondly, City have the money to spend, whilst Tottenham normally have to raise money through sales. Furthermore the expectations on the two sides are very different. City expect to be challenging for the Premier League and Champions League whilst realistically Tottenham’s aims are still more geared towards the top four and a good European run. Plus teams will probably demand more once they know City are interested.
But why can’t City learn these lessons? Why do they have to spend so much money all the time? There has long been a school of thought that the elite clubs are far too scared to pick up players from smaller sides. Good players are good players, why do they need to join clubs like Tottenham, Leicester or Everton before they get a move to City, or Manchester United?
Bayern Munich's coach Pep Guardiola (L) chats with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg
Image credit: Reuters
Liverpool of course bucked this trend with players such as Andrew Robertson (£8 million) and Joe Gomez (£3.5 million), but they also had to spend big to acquire Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk when they had already proved themselves elsewhere.
Of course there are caveats here. Some players develop later than others. Some players need the time and attention that a big club can’t afford them. Some just aren’t on the radar of the bigger clubs, even with their bigger scouting budgets.
But it’s hard to look at the squads of City and Spurs and not feel that City have gone too far the other way. It’s not just them, some of the fees thrown about in football generally are abhorrent but that is the game today. City just need to find a little more of a balance. Liverpool showed that you could build a genuinely fantastic team with sensible transfers. That allowed them to pay what they needed to for players like Alisson and Van Dijk. Four players in the Liverpool squad cost over £40 million, there are ten in City’s.
City have made some wonderful signings over the years, players who have made the Premier League a better place. But sometimes it can feel as if they’re constantly throwing money at their problems without ever really having a clear strategy.
No team’s transfer strategy is perfect. The nature of a big six club in England means that there will always be a lot of – expensive – misses in the transfer market. But City need to be careful that they aren’t being conned by teams who are looking to take advantage of their riches. At some stage those riches may run out, or they may be restricted, and they have to be able to show that they can find value. Especially when they are not developing as many younger players as some of their rivals to help supplement their squad.