Christian Eriksen's Premier League return highlights creative touch missing at Tottenham

Danish midfielder looks set to join Brentford while his former club have yet to replace player who left for Inter Milan two years ago

Christian Eriksen left Tottenham Hotspur for Inter Milan in January 2020. Reuters
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When Christian Eriksen left Tottenham in January 2020, it would have sounded utterly implausible to suggest his next club game in England would be in the colours of Brentford. He was one of the game’s classiest playmakers, bound for Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan, and even if he never played in the Premier League again, the logical assumption would have been that he would return to the United Kingdom in the Champions League.

Meanwhile, Brentford had not played top-flight football since 1947. Given Eriksen’s brush with death, and the harrowing images of his cardiac arrest on the Parken Stadium pitch in Euro 2020, an impending move to Brentford is not the most unexpected or unwelcome development in recent months for him.

He has been away from English shores for two years but Tottenham have never properly replaced him. That feels more egregious as his supposed replacement had arrived months before Eriksen’s sale. It was no secret his contract was expiring. Spurs probably anticipated selling him sooner. And so they recruited Giovani Lo Celso in 2019, later converting a loan into a permanent deal.

If Tanguy Ndombele was the designated successor for Mousa Dembele, Lo Celso was anointed as Eriksen’s heir. Include his loan and transfer fees and the Argentinian is the second biggest buy in Tottenham’s history, behind only Ndombele. Neither was even on the bench at Chelsea on Sunday as Conte sent out a particularly unsubtle hint to the board that he wants both gone before the end of January.

Lo Celso had a fine spell of about three months in 2019-20. Ndombele played well for part of last season. Nevertheless, Spurs have precious little to show for their investment. The Argentinian has started 28 of 96 league games in his time at the club. He has just three assists. He has not been as incisive or influential a passer.

The comparison with Eriksen is pronounced: in the Dane’s best season, 2016-17, he created 15 Premier League goals. He was in double figures in three other campaigns. He ranks in the division’s all-time top 20 for assists and, of the 18 men ahead of him, only Kevin de Bruyne has spent as little time in the division.

This season, no Tottenham player has four assists and the trio on three — Son Heung-min, Lucas Moura and Sergio Reguilon — are scarcely playmakers in Eriksen’s mould. Last season, the player to compensate for his absence was Harry Kane, dropping deeper to create and ending up with a league-high 14 assists. But since Eriksen got 12 assists in 2018-19, no one remotely resembling a central midfielder has got more than four in a campaign for Tottenham.

It is partly a tale of Dele Alli’s decline, partly a reflection that various managers have struggled with the enigmas of Ndombele and Lo Celso, partly an illustration of a recent preference for graft over craft in some distinctly prosaic midfields. Now the Dane who is a defining figure at the centre of the pitch for Tottenham is the industrious Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, not the more delicate Eriksen.

If he was a creator first, he was a scorer who could supplement Kane and Son’s efforts. His six full seasons all yielded at least six league goals. Two brought 10. Ndombele, Lo Celso, Hojbjerg, Harry Winks and Oliver Skipp have not mustered anything remotely similar. Alli used to, but does not any more. For obvious reasons, much of the focus on Eriksen has been on the person who was almost lost last year. But two years on from his departure, Tottenham still miss the player. As they try to usher Lo Celso to the exit, it leaves a glaring vacancy for a new Eriksen.

Christian Eriksen celebrates after scoring a free-kick for Inter Milan against Udinese in May, 2021. AFP
Updated: January 25, 2022, 12:32 PM