Eriksen praises Pochettino’s regime for adding strength to his sorcery
Tottenham playmaker tells Jonathan Liew his magical form is down to the coach demanding so much of him
C hristian Eriksen is nobody’s idea of a workhorse. Perhaps it is that unhurried style of his, the easy gait, the time he seems to have on the ball. But any Tottenham fan will tell you that Eriksen is one of the hardest, strongest runners in English football: deceptively quick, quietly relentless.
“I’ve always been a player on the move,” he says. “It’s not because I like running. I like getting the ball. If you are smart, you don’t need to run.”
In the past few weeks, that hard work has finally been paying off. Urged by manager Mauricio Pochettino to “dominate” games more often, Eriksen has responded with five goals and three assists in his past seven matches. Ahead of crucial games against Watford this afternoon and Chelsea, Tottenham are at the door of the top four, and in Eriksen they possess one of the Premier League’s finest locksmiths.
“I’ve never been one to go past 20 players on the wing,” he explains. “I’m always going to be the guy sneaking the ball through, to build and create something. The one I most admire is [Andres] Iniesta. His style of play has been fantastic for years. Of course, they run less at Barcelona as they always have the ball …”
The best way of describing Eriksen (right) is as a classic playmaker with a jagged edge. When Tottenham are in possession, he creates and roams like a No 10. But when possession is lost, he hounds and harries with more energy than virtually anyone else. “The style we play at Spurs, you need everyone to press, so it is difficult to just walk around,” he says. “If you played as a No 10 before, they could chill and do whatever. I don’t think that is possible anymore.”
This is Eriksen’s fourth season in English football. And although he was always a superb athlete, the physical demands of the Premier League have sculpted him. There is more muscle on the bones than when he arrived from Ajax as a 21-year-old, a legacy of Pochettino’s compulsory gym sessions.
“The body mass is going a little bit up, and the body fat has gone down a bit,” he says. “So I’m in very good shape. I’ve always been a runner. But the power, the aggression that he [Pochettino] really likes, that’s probably changed a bit.”
Tottenham’s pin-sharp physical conditioning was so evident in their title challenge last season. But with the crushing finale, and the distraction of international tournaments in the summer, perhaps it was inevitable, I suggest, that there would be a drop in intensity when the squad reconvened for pre-season training.
Eriksen meets the question with an incredulous smirk. “It was worse,” he says. “Not worse – harder. Because we were still in good shape, but he wanted us to be in even better shape. The year before, we didn’t know what we would be able to do. But this year, they know everybody, and they were able to push us a bit more.” But if Pochettino is an expert in dialling up the intensity, he knows when to dial it down too. With a gap of 10 days between games over the festive period, he gave his side some time off, allowing Eriksen to return home and see his family on Christmas Day for the first time in three years. “He’s a good guy,” Eriksen says. “If there is anything to say, you can go to him. Of course, if anything is wrong he will say so as well. But you want to play for the manager. And you want to be in his team.” The problem for Tottenham is that although they actually have more points than at this stage last season, everyone else has raised their game too. And nobody more so than Chelsea, who sit clear at the top of the Premier League. Their trip to White Hart Lane on Wednesday has the makings of one of the season’s defining games.
“They’ve been impressive,” says Eriksen. “We will do whatever we can to close the gap. The first aim is to get in the top four. After, we’ll see. We’ll keep fighting until the end. Like the movies.”
There was certainly no lack of commitment at the squad’s fancy dress Christmas party, judging by the photos which leaked out on to social media. Dele Alli went as Ali G, Harry Kane went as Bane, the villain from the Batman films. Mousa Dembélé was the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Kyle Walker was Mrs Doubtfire. Eriksen’s choice was strangely appropriate. “My girlfriend mentioned that it could be funny going as Harry Potter,” he says. “It looked very lifelike, as I’ve seen the films – I’m not a book reader.”
For Tottenham’s boy wizard, now 24 years old and close to full maturity as a player, you would be tempted to describe this as something of a crossroads. Except that a few months ago he spurned the attentions of bigger clubs to extend his contract at Tottenham to 2020, a sign that he wants to spend his best years in Pochettino’s family. “The more stable you are, if you have the same manager, mostly the same players, it makes it easier,” he explains. “It gives a bit of comfort. It’s not like, ‘He’s going to leave in a week anyway’. You know what you have to work for. And that gives you a good feeling.”