Erik­sen the great Dane who just gets bet­ter and bet­ter

Tot­ten­ham player’s emer­gence is all about a sin­gu­lar tal­ent bril­liantly guided

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER FIFA WORLD CUP 2018 PLAYOFF - Keith Dug­gan

In Fe­bru­ary 2011, the ad­vance billing for Eng­land’s friendly against Den­mark in Copen­hagen re­volved around the full in­ter­na­tional de­but of 19-year-old Jack Wil­shere. Fabio Capello, the Eng­land man­ager, placed the Arse­nal young­ster in a starry con­text by rem­i­nisc­ing on the youth of ex­cep­tional Ital­ian play­ers he had man­aged in the past like Paulo Mal­dini and Franco Baresi. “It’s about tal­ent,” he ex­plained.

Eng­land won the fix­ture 2-1, but it was Den­mark’s prodigy Chris­tian Erik­sen who owned the night with a scin­til­lat­ing play-mak­ing per­for­mance that was at once com­mand­ing and ethe­real.

He was hardly an un­known then: the youngest player to fea­ture in the World Cup in South Africa the pre­vi­ous year and Den­mark’s youngest in­ter­na­tional cap since Michael Lau­drup.

Watch­ing the in­tri­ca­cies of Capello’s de­fen­sive frame­work dis­solve quickly in­ten­si­fied the in­ter­est of the English clubs which had been mon­i­tor­ing his progress at Ajax.

Liver­pool were linked as prospec­tive bid­ders, and it would later emerge that Erik­sen turned down a move to Manch­ester City. Tim Sher­wood, an as­sis­tant at Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur at the time, was among those watch­ing on tele­vi­sion.

“I rang Daniel Levy [club chair­man] the next day and said that he needs to sign this boy,” Sher­wood would re­call with sat­is­fac­tion some three years later af­ter watch­ing, as man­ager, Erik­sen dis­man­tle Ful­ham in a 3-1 win.

Six years have passed since that evening in the Parken sta­dium where Ire­land will on Satur­day evening face Den­mark and more specif­i­cally Erik­sen in the cli­mac­tic stages of what has been an ar­du­ous World Cup cam­paign.

It is the per­fect con­trast: if Ire­land is a team con­spic­u­ously de­void of vir­tu­oso tal­ent, then Den­mark have cat­a­pulted to­wards this play-off largely on the strength of Erik­sen’s ex­trav­a­gant ar­ray of cre­ative gifts.

Crit­i­cal in­flu­ence

For Mar­tin O’Neill, the re­cent ev­i­dence of the crit­i­cal in­flu­ence Erik­sen ex­erts on the na­tional team must have been omi­nous. In early Septem­ber he was cen­tral in cre­at­ing goals for Thomas De­laney, An­dreas Cor­nelius and Ni­co­lai Jør­gen­son, be­fore com­plet­ing a 4-0 thump­ing of group win­ners Poland with a goal from a free kick.

A month later he scored the only goal in Den­mark’s away win over Mon­tene­gro in Pod­gor­ica, a re­sult that re­versed the set­back the Danes suf­fered in Copen­hagen a year ear­lier.

Three nights af­ter that and back home he con­verted a penalty in a 1-1 draw with Ro­ma­nia to ex­tend his scor­ing streak, and usher Den­mark through to the play­offs in a con­fi­dent run of form.

Ini­tial Ir­ish ju­bi­la­tion at hav­ing drawn the Danes ig­nored that the team has gone un­beaten in their qual­i­fy­ing group since Oc­to­ber 2016, and that their only two losses in the group were con­fined to a bleak three-day pe­riod over a year ago.

When Erik­sen was asked about his master-class against Poland, he sim­ply said: “You must judge. Mea­sured on as­sist and goals it was prob­a­bly one of my best in­ter­na­tional matches.”

The re­ply con­tains ev­ery­thing that Erik­sen’s coaches have praised about him: an un­shake­able self-be­lief cloaked in mod­esty, a com­i­cally Nordic even-tem­pered­ness and a level-headed ap­praisal of his own worth.

“Eyes in the back of his head,” said Frank de Boer, his coach when he joined the Ajax un­der­age struc­ture.

“I had to drag him off the train­ing field ev­ery day,” claimed Sher­wood.

“I like him a lot be­cause he does not need to be recog­nised,” said Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino, his man­ager at Spurs, this year.

Erik­sen’s pro­gres­sion to this point has been dis­con­cert­ingly straight­for­ward.

He is, by all ac­counts, a thor­oughly like­able young Dan­ish man who was ob­sessed by foot­ball dur­ing his child­hood in the pleas­ant town of Mid­del­fart.

He played a lot of Foot­ball Man­ager in his leisure time, got his first tech­ni­cal ground­ing from his fa­ther, joined Odense at 13, where he pro­ceeded to de­stroy ri­val teams and en­joy huge lo­cal ac­claim with­out los­ing sight of the big­ger pic­ture.

There were tri­als with Chelsea and vis­its to other of Europe’s su­per-clubs be­fore he set­tled for the smaller-scale ad­van­tages of Ajax at the age 16.

Foot­ball, rather than pro­file or in­stant mega-wealth, in­formed his in­stinct. He thrived at Ajax: ini­tially he was moved from un­der-19 to un­der-17 to fa­cil­i­tate his set­tling in but the re­sponse was the same: he took a cou­ple of games to ad­just be­fore quickly be­com­ing the out­stand­ing player on his side.

Erik­sen was still just 17 when De Boer told the first team man­age­ment that he was ready to make his se­nior de­but against NEC Breda in Jan­uary 2010.

Emer­gence

The syn­op­sis of Erik­sen’s emer­gence is of a sin­gu­lar tal­ent bril­liantly guided. Ajax were pa­tient in how they chal­lenged him, but each time his re­sponse was em­phatic. The 2011 sea­son con­firmed him as one of the club’s jew­els: he fin­ished as Dan­ish foot­baller of the year, Ajax’s player of the year and, most sig­nif­i­cantly, the Dutch Tal­ent of the Year.

He joined Tot­ten­ham just a week be­fore the sum­mer trans­fer win­dow closed in Au­gust 2013, land­ing at the Lon­don club dur­ing the spree which fol­lowed Gareth Bale’s bo­nanza move to Real Madrid.

Erik­sen took his habit of in­stantly set­tling into a side with him to Lon­don, ap­ply­ing his height­ened read­ing of the game and ter­rific pass­ing abil­ity to pull the strings in a 2-0 win over Nor­wich just three days af­ter meet­ing the other play­ers. He wore num­ber 23 but played as an ar­che­typal num­ber 10, draw­ing a cho­rus of com­pli­ments.

Se­bastien Bas­song, a for­mer Spurs de­fender who lined out with Nor­wich that day, of­fered a deft scout­ing re­port which has a clair­voy­ant ring to it.

“[Me­sut] Ozil must be one of the best num­ber 10 in the world, a fan­tas­tic player, and Erik­sen is not far be­hind him. He knows where to put him­self, float­ing be­tween the lines. As soon as he gets the ball he is a threat.

“He plays very sim­ply. With his touch and vi­sion he sees the right pass at the right mo­ment. It’s hard to know whether to fol­low him be­cause he can make the dif­fer­ence as soon as he gets the ball, in a split sec­ond. That is how top qual­ity play­ers are, and he is a top qual­ity player.”

Bale was in­jured as Real Madrid were run ragged by Tot­ten­ham on that re­cent fa­mous evening at Wem­b­ley when it felt as if the power base in the Euro­pean game might be shift­ing. Erik­sen’s 66th minute goal marked the high point of a dreamy hour when Spurs had fun against Madrid, run­ning in three goals be­fore Ron­aldo snatched a late con­so­la­tion.

The match was a fur­ther high point in what has been a daz­zling au­tumn for Erik­sen. It wasn’t just the goal – a cool fin­ish af­ter hold­ing off Spurs’ for­mer cre­ative sprite Luka Mo­dric.

It was his propen­sity for pop­ping up ev­ery­where – let­ting the ball run through for and then bust­ing a gut to of­fer sup­port on the right for Delle Ali’s sec­ond goal; drift­ing into the penalty area time and time again un­no­ticed and al­ways cre­at­ing, seek­ing to set up Fer­nando Llorente for a fourth in the 90th minute.

Most-wanted charts

Last sum­mer he signed a con­tract that keeps him at Tot­ten­ham un­til 2020. But his de­par­ture from his usual mode of quiet ex­cel­lence to be­ing talk of the town will see him shoot up the most-wanted charts. For if there is a com­plaint to be made against Erik­sen, it’s that he has some­times dis­guised his dis­tinct abil­ity too well.

It is just over three years since Den­mark lost to Por­tu­gal in a match which left then man­ager Mar­tin Olsen in­fu­ri­ated by what he saw as Erik­sen’s pas­siv­ity.

“Af­ter so many matches he could pick up the ball and help con­trol the game. He has not been able to. There­fore we blame him. He must stand up to the crit­i­cism – and he does.”

He con­tin­ues to. Erik­sen wears the re­spon­si­bil­ity of act­ing as Den­mark’s tal­is­man with im­pos­si­ble light­ness. With six goals in Den­mark’s last eight goals and happy in a Spurs team that mixes true craft with the cav­a­lier, he is en­ter­ing the prime phase of his foot­ball life.

He has an un­shake­able self-be­lief cloaked in mod­esty, a com­i­cally Nordic even-tem­pered­ness and a level-headed ap­praisal of his own worth.

Com­bat­ive ap­proach

He is a prob­lem for Ire­land. It could be that the best hope is that the un­com­pro­mis­ing and com­bat­ive ap­proach of O’Neill’s team might con­vince Erik­sen that this is not the type of en­counter best suited to his tal­ents. In Cardiff, Wales were never quite the same af­ter Joe Allen, their slen­der play­maker, left the pitch with a heavy knock.

But Erik­sen has a gift for elud­ing the stam­pede rather than try­ing to fight his way through it. “I’ve al­ways been a player on the move,” he told Jonathan Liew in an in­ter­view with the Tele­graph last Christ­mas. “It’s not be­cause I like run­ning. I like get­ting the ball. If you are smart enough you don’t need the ball.”

He will take mind­ing.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MAR­TIN ROSE/BONGARTS/GETTY IM­AGES

Chris­tian Erik­sen: Den­mark have cat­a­pulted to­wards this play­off largely on the strength of his ex­trav­a­gant ar­ray of cre­ative gifts.

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