Christian Eriksen has been an “it” player for so long, it’s difficult to know where his skill set ends and his reputation begins. That’s what happens to players who break into Ajax’s first team at 18. They have their skills exaggerated, the influence of Dutch mystique leading those who ascribe the 1970’s antiquated notions to cast Eriksens as new models off an exaggerated assembly line. And as a player like Erikson contributes (24 goals in three season), wins awards (Dutch Player of the Year, 2011), and garners links to bigger clubs, he becomes the latest variable in an overused equation.
Perhaps it was that equation ID’d Eriksen as a breakout candidate at last year’s European Championships. Too bad that breakout never happened. With Denmark only playing three games at Euro 2012, we shouldn’t read too much into Eriksen’s output. Still, a player who was expected to be Morten Olsen’s best failed to have an impact. Now with only three goals in 34 international appearances, Eriksen has yet to show he can produce outside Holland’s attacker-friendly environment.
It all makes Eriksen’s path look a little like Eden Hazard’s, part of the reason why he’s been linked with the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham Hotspur. Both players had great success at club level around 20 years old, though Hazard’s production was greater than Eriksen’s while playing in a more difficult league. As young attacking midfield, both have struggled for country while dominating for club, and while Hazard’s exploits in Ligue 1 paved a move to one of the world’s big spenders, Eriksen’s play at a lower level built links to other impressive (if more financially constrained) teams.
But comparisons like that only compound the distortion around players like Eriksen. Too often we have difficulty developing a constructive conversation around players whose hype transcends their skills. After a player like Eriksen sits on the rumor mill for three years, a momentum develops, creating résumés built on Wikipedia links to Daily Mail conjecture. There’s little disincentive to overhype talent or links when there’s so much demand for gossip.
At some point, as voices become more authoritative amid the growing chatter, we’re left talking about an abstractions – breakout players who were never been capable of breaking out. In the case of Eriksen, the conversation now hinges on pure speculation. What would he do if he wasn’t playing on his league’s most talented team? What would he do if he wasn’t playing in such an attack-centric league? These sorts of questions are asked about every player, but when that player comes from a league (Eredivsie) and club (Ajax) who many fans view in light of old, romantic statures, it becomes more difficult to engage the counterpoint. It becomes more difficult to see past the abstractions.
What’s particularly interesting regarding Eriksen are the small, meaningful steps he’s taken in the last 12 months to make those abstractions real. Already a valuable contributor for Ajax, the Danish international went from eight all-competition goals in 2011-12 to 13 last season. Although his assist totals took a small step back, Eriksen proved a more decisive force around goal. On a team that scored 10 fewer goals in league, it’s little surprise a 21-year-old’s more team dependent numbers (assists) regressed while his goal rate improved.
It’s tempting to wonder if, with that improved ability to dictate his own destiny, Eriksen would have had more to say at last summer’s championships.
Now, with that added layer to his game, Eriksen is ready to leave the Netherlands, with Borussia Dortmund reportedly tabbing the Danish attacker as Mario Götze’s replacement. Atletico Mineiro’s Bernard has also been linked with the spot (and it’s not beyond Dortmund to buy both), but in the scenario reported today by France Football, Eriksen would go to Dortmund, highly-touted 19-year-old Adam Maher would move to Ajax from AZ, and Earnie Stewart would get a huge chunk of change for his club’s troubles.
It’s difficult to image a better scenario for Eriksen. What Marco Reus was to BVB last year — a highly talented attacker adapting to a new team while playing new to a world class talent — Eriksen could be to this year’s. And while few would choose Eriksen over Götze, if Reus rises to the increased challenge, Dortmund may see little drop off. In time, as Eriksen adjusts to higher expectations and a more difficult league, Dortmund could do as they’ve always done over the last three years: move forward.
Yet all that falls into the same trap. We’re placing Eriksen in the context of Hazard and Reus, forgetting his Euro 2012 disappointments, the regression of the Dutch league, and his inability to make an impact at the international level. We forget the picture surrounding the 21-year-old is more clouded than his transfer hype would have us believe.
Like all transfers, Eriksen’s will carry significant risk. And it’s only after he moves to a place like Dortmund that we’ll be able see through these clouds and distinguish the skills from the hype.