Thursday 14 July 2016 10:23, UK
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg was once seen as the next Sergio Busquets by Pep Guardiola, but Southampton's new signing has a point to prove in the Premier League, writes Nick Wright...
Before Pep Guardiola took over at Bayern Munich in the summer of 2013, he requested a detailed scouting report on their gifted young midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. The 17-year-old had made his Bundesliga debut under Jupp Heynckes just a few months earlier, and the new man in charge was eager to find out more.
The report was put together by Albert Celades, the coach of Spain's U20s and a former team-mate of Guardiola at Barcelona, who described Hojbjerg as a "diamond in the rough". The Danish youth international was a raw talent who had shown considerable potential since arriving at Bayern from Brondby in 2012, and it didn't take long for Guardiola to see it for himself.
"Pep had heard good things about Hojbjerg before coming to Bayern and it has taken just a couple of training sessions for him to fall in love with the player," wrote Marti Perarnau in Pep Confidential, his book about Guardiola's first season in charge of Bayern. "Pep thinks he may have just found the Sergio Busquets of Bayern."
Busquets had blossomed into the world's best deep-lying midfielder under Guardiola's stewardship at Barcelona, and the Catalan saw similar attributes in Hojbjerg. The teenager was a talented passer whose intelligent reading of the game was perfectly suited to the role of pivote, and Guardiola - an expert in the position - wanted to teach him everything he knew.
Hojbjerg trained with Bayern's first team throughout the 2013/14 season, receiving what Perarnau described as "hours and hours of almost non-stop obsessional attention" from Guardiola at Bayern's Sabener Strasse training ground. The education was invaluable for Hojbjerg, but he had to bide his time for a chance to make an impact on the pitch.
For all the personal attention, Guardiola offered his protégé little in the way of playing time. Hojbjerg was behind Phillip Lahm, Thiago Alcantara, Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the central midfield pecking order, and the teenager's progress was also stalled by the tragic death of his father during Guardiola's first season in charge.
Hojbjerg did start at right-back in Bayern's German Cup final win over Borussia Dortmund in May 2014, but opportunities in his favoured position were limited. After 18 months under Guardiola, he had only made seven Bundesliga and Champions League starts, and while he was already emerging as a key player for Denmark, a change was required at club level.
Hojbjerg's first extended run of games came on loan at Bayern's Bundesliga rivals Augsburg in the second half of the 2014/15 season. Manager Markus Weinzierl described the youngster as "sensational" after an impressive debut in a 3-1 win over Hoffenheim, and Hojbjerg featured prominently as the Bavarian club clinched an unexpected fifth-placed finish.
Hojbjerg had impressed in a box-to-box role at Augsburg, but back at Bayern it was decided he would spend the 2015/16 campaign with Schalke.
Bayern's sporting director Matthias Sammer insisted they still had "high hopes" for the youngster, but a frustrating season at the Gelsenkirchen club yielded just 13 Bundesliga starts as he struggled to hold down a first-team place.
His development suffered, and by the end of the season, Hojbjerg had decided he needed to leave Bayern permanently to kick-start his career. There were even suggestions he had fallen out with Guardiola. "I need to find something that fits me," he told Danish newspaper BT. "It's clear that it won't be a top club. I want a place where there is a perspective."
England international Ryan Bertrand has signed a new contract at Southampton.
That place turned out to be Southampton. The south coast club have developed an impressive record for nurturing young players while challenging near the top of the Premier League table, and they needed a central midfielder after losing Victor Wanyama to Tottenham.
Hojbjerg fit the profile, and he didn't have to think twice when the offer came. "When I heard that Southampton came in for me, I said to my people that this is what I want to do," he told the club's website. "It's the way I like to think, it's the way I like to play and it fits me really well."
The 6ft 1in Dane is still only 20 years old and has the physical and technical attributes to shine in the Premier League, but the question is whether he can finally unlock his huge potential at Southampton. His passing prowess is certainly a good fit for the Saints' possession-based playing style, but Hojbjerg has only made 28 league starts in the last three seasons. Above all, he needs consistent playing time.
Southampton's £12.8m investment suggests Hojbjerg will get that under Claude Puel, but he arrives in England with a point to prove to his former mentor Guardiola. "It's a big opportunity for me," he said. "I look forward to giving what I have and what I can to the club. They have put trust in me. I want to show them that they are not wrong."
His determination is clear. Things did not work out as planned for Hojbjerg at Bayern, but Southampton now stand to benefit from his stellar footballing education. "It really made me who I am today," he said. "For the future, what I learned at Bayern is worth gold. I am really thankful that I experienced it, but now it's a new chapter."
If he can deliver on the potential Guardiola saw in him, Hojbjerg could be Southampton's next success story.