There's a peculiar phrase in football journalism and television: "key man." Ahead of a particular match, domestic campaign or international tournament, analysts will pinpoint a particular player who fits the bill. The precise meaning of the key man, however, is never properly outlined.
There are probably two main interpretations of this phrase. The most simple is the obvious: that team's star player, the one recognised as his team's best. For Tottenham Hotspur, that man is Harry Kane.
Another approach is to identify the player who most characterises the team's footballing philosophy. For Spurs, you might highlight Mousa Dembele as someone who perfectly suits the pressing game Mauricio Pochettino wants to play. He shuts down opponents quickly and is also probably the Premier League's best player (especially in the continued absence of Santi Cazorla at Arsenal) at shuffling past opposition challenges in midfield.
But perhaps the best approach when choosing a key man is selecting the player who offers a unique quality. For Spurs, that man is Christian Eriksen, and his starring role in Tottenham's 2-0 victory over Chelsea on Wednesday evening was a perfect example.
In a fast-paced, hugely intense contest at White Hart Lane, no one was finding any space. This owed much to Pochettino's 3-4-3 system designed to match Chelsea across the pitch, which resulted in obvious individual battles in various positions. The players with most time in possession were probably the Spurs centre-backs, with Chelsea's wide forwards sometimes dropping off to play their role in a midfield press. Midfielders and attackers, though, found themselves closed down quickly.
Eriksen was the exception. Drifting between the lines from his inside-right position, Eriksen was the one man showing imagination and offering guile in possession. In the opening stages he was shut down, either by a Chelsea midfielder or centre-back Gary Cahill stepping up to close him down in advanced positions. But after Cahill was booked for rugby tackling Eriksen toward the end of the first half, the Dane found more time in possession. He provided the game's two crucial passes, both crosses toward the far post for Dele Alli, who timed his runs brilliantly and nodded in twice. Alli hit the headlines, but Eriksen was the matchwinner.
Eriksen had a perfect footballing upbringing for his role at Spurs. Schooled at Ajax, a club that places particular emphasis upon technical skills but also preaches the importance of pressing, the Dane was always noticeable for his attempts to control the tempo of the game. One match, in particular, springs to mind.
Toward the end of Eriksen's last full season in the Eredivisie, Ajax travelled to PSV, their major title rivals. It was an aggressive, physical contest with PSV turning it into a battle rather than a beautiful spectacle; Eriksen was the only player seemingly attempting to play good football.
The game was notable for a running battle between Mark van Bommel and Christian Poulsen, among the most notorious "spoilers" in European football over the last decade. Eriksen was pressed intensely and conceded possession for a PSV goal. But his creativity proved crucial: He assisted Ajax's first goal for Derk Boerrigter, found space to score the second himself and then played a through-ball for Kolbeinn Sigthorsson to score the goal that effectively won Ajax the title.
This was a perfect demonstration of Eriksen: Sometimes he'll look out of place in a physical midfield scrap; occasionally he'll seem a liability. But he has the ability to dominate matches because he's different from the other 21 players on the pitch.
Eriksen seems to acknowledge this slightly unusual role. While recognizing that he needed to change his body shape to adjust to both Pochettino's high-intensity system and the demands of the Premier League, he understands he's about creativity rather than direct dribbling.
"I've never been one to go past 20 players on the wing," he told the Telegraph last week. "I'm always going to be the guy sneaking the ball through, to build and create something."
Without Eriksen, no one else is doing that.
It's notable that this season, he creates 2.9 chances per game for teammates. Only West Ham's Dimitri Payet and Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne can match that figure, with Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Coutinho next on the list. It's obvious that Eriksen is among the most prolific playmakers in the league.
His figure is also significantly better than the majority of his teammates: Erik Lamela and Heung-Min Son have respectable numbers in terms of creating chances, although neither are quite capable of unlocking defences in the manner of Eriksen. Lamela is a good presser, and Son makes good decisions on the break, but they aren't defence-splitters. It's no coincidence that Eriksen has played more minutes than any other Spurs attacking player: Only Jan Vertonghen and Victor Wanyama have played more. Pochettino simply can't do without him.
Indeed, without Eriksen it would be difficult to work out Tottenham's precise attacking style. It's peculiar that they've only created four chances this season following through-balls, considerably inferior to their rivals at the top of the league. (Manchester United have 16, Arsenal 15, Chelsea 13.) Spurs' figure is the same as Swansea's, less than Stoke's. While a shortage of shots isn't a problem -- Spurs have the most in the league -- their fans traditionally appreciate clever midfield schemers, the Glenn Hoddle and Luka Modric figures who add beauty to attacking play.
For all the pressing and the energetic runs of the full-backs, Spurs also need something more intelligent, and Eriksen's style seems to work particularly well when an initial physical onslaught has tired the opposition. That's why Eriksen is so important.
He's not Spurs' most revered player, nor the man who typifies their style, but he definitely provides the extra dimension. In that sense, Eriksen is Spurs' key man.