Before Inter’s 2-1 victory over Fiorentina in Wednesday’s Coppa Italia clash, Christian Eriksen had not completed a full 90 minutes of football all season.
Well, coach Antonio Conte put paid to that statistic against la Viola, leaving the Dane on the field for the 90 minutes plus half an hour of extra-time in Florence. It was an interesting tactic from the Italian. Was it some form of punishment? Was it a mind game?
Or was he leaving his outcast in the shop window for as long as possible?
If it was the latter, he would have been better off playing Eriksen in a role he has actually performed before, rather than throwing him in the deep end, and leaving him to learn how to swim in 120 minutes.
Eriksen was deployed in a deep-lying midfield role against Fiorentina, partnering Arturo Vidal in front of the defence, while Roberto Gagliardini was allowed the freedom to roam up and down the pitch in search of space.
It was a curious selection from Conte, who, rather than leaving out the want-away attacking midfielder altogether, decided to try and squeeze him into his rigid, trequartista-less formation.
What were the results of this experiment, then? Well, mixed, to say the least.
Eriksen is a man who plays the game at his own speed, and given that he’s not blessed with pace, he has mastered the art of affecting matches within the constraints of his own deficiencies. That understanding of the game has allowed him to pick up half-passing opportunities on his radar, and then deliver them just before being closed down by an opponent.
But when playing in a much, much deeper role with far less immediate pressure, the Dane appeared to have almost too much time to think, dawdling in possession and slowing Inter down. He was a handbrake to their attacks, putting his foot on the ball too frequently and ignoring the impatient Alexis Sanchez and Lautaro Martinez.
Another noticeable learning curve that Eriksen suffered during the game was his pass selection. The 28-year-old has made a living off opting for a riskier pass, and his willingness to sacrifice possession in the search of a potentially match-winning assist has built him into the top player he is today.
You don’t have such liberties when playing just in front of the defence, though. Eriksen almost freed Fiorentina for the perfect counter-attack in the first half, clipping a square ball into no-man’s-land, and encouraging La Viola to break with pace at an exposed backline.
He also threw his team into chaos late in the second half, getting caught in possession high up the pitch and allowing a three versus two attack to unfold behind him. Fortunately for Eriksen, his well-drilled defence spared his blushes on both occasions.
If he is learning Marcelo Brozovic’s play-making role, then he was also lacking buckets of tenacity in the tackle, the endless energy and zip needed to get the team moving vertically, and a general finesse for the role. To be expected, of course.
He did have his good moments, too. The midfielder was in his element when pressed, turning out of danger with neat footwork or one-touch passes to free teammates into acres of space. On the whole, his passing was as accurate and sharp as you’d expect, and he even created a couple of chances and tested the Fiorentina goalkeeper with two long-range efforts.
Statistically, he played a good game, and as far as Conte’s experiments go, this was one of his more successful test runs, offering hope that Eriksen has a future at the club.
However, those almost-assists and cracks at goal came when he decided to abandon his defensive duties, and listened to his footballing instincts – something that is widely discouraged by his military coach.
It may be time for Eriksen to listen to his instincts a little bit more, as they must surely be telling him to get out of Inter while his reputation is still intact, and move to a club where he can play his own game.