Another week, another fraught selection of noises off at Tottenham Hotspur: Spurs may be on course for a creditable fifth place in the Premier League but this season will surely take its place as one of the more relentlessly tortured episodes of par-score achievement in recent Premier League history. If there is something almost endearingly overblown about the scale of dissatisfaction – capped this week by apocalyptic statements of censure from Tim Sherwood towards his squad – then there was at least a reassuring consistency about the return of Christian Eriksen in the Europa League defeat at home to Benfica on Thursday night.
A symbol of soft-pedalled optimism in a frantic season, Eriksen produced another persuasive performance of sideways-shunted creativity from his position on the left of midfield. Spurs host Arsenal in the Premier League on Sunday afternoon with their season now apparently in the balance and a manager in a state of potentially terminal funk. If there is a note of positivity it is surely here. Never mind the bluster. Where there is Eriksen there is – quietly, methodically – hope.
Not that the club's shrewdest signing of that rapacious summer spree is the type to shout his own merits too loudly. Eight months on from a relatively low-key summer move from Ajax – a rare note of clarity in the great jangling symphony by numbers that was Tottenham's post-Gareth Bale transfer window – Eriksen still seems pleasantly surprised that he is able to travel on the tube or go to the cinema in London without being recognised. But then Eriksen, the most understated of high-grade attacking midfielders, has always tended to operate by stealth, a gloriously talented 22-year-old who in his midweek post-training kit looks less like one of Europe's select band of tyro millionaire sportsmen and more like a trainee quantity surveyor just back from a lunchtime game of squash. It is a misleading air of nonchalance. After a season muddied by injury and managerial change Eriksen will make his Premier League return in the north London derby an increasingly settled and even – whisper it – quietly effective, creative influence.
"I'm not a player to defend or run around, I want the ball," he says of his distinctive light-touch style, speaking at Tottenham's beautifully high-spec, new-era complex in Enfield. But this is also a little misleading, as Eriksen is above all a team player, whose worth this season is perhaps best measured Moneyball-style by its bare statistical returns. Since Christmas Spurs have lost three times – to Arsenal, Manchester City and now Benfica – when Eriksen has had at least half an hour on the pitch. In that period he has scored five goals and provided three assists in 11 matches. In the past three months he has more goals and assists combined than Mesut Özil, David Silva, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard. Against this a total of 19 players moved into or out of the Premier League last summer for more than Eriksen's cut-price £11.5m fee, which looks an increasingly convincing candidate for bargain of the summer.
It has been a sure-footed early spring rise to not-quite-prominence, so much so that when Eriksen chides his team-mates, mildly, for the muted nature of last weekend's 4-0 defeat at Chelsea it is with a degree of gathering authority. "It is always hard when the referee is against you. Then Chelsea scored goals from personal mistakes, so it's easy for them of course and it makes it more difficult for us to come back. I think you still have in your head that you lost 6-0 or whatever [against Manchester City], so you want to keep it as short as possible and maybe that's why you play more for the 2-0 and not the 6-0."
Spurs' tendency to collapse against teams above them in the league has cast a pall over preparations for a season-ending spell that includes matches against Arsenal and Liverpool as well as the return leg against Benfica. "You can't get in the top four if you can't beat the clubs who are in the top four," Eriksen says. "I don't know how big the gap is. It's bigger than we would have hoped but we know we're not that far. But we need to start winning against the top four before we can start to be compared equally."
Victory against Arsenal would be an excellent place to start. "I've only played it once [the north London derby] but I could still feel how it is with the fans and everything around the club, so yeah, we know it's going to be a really nice game to play," Eriksen says, before going off-message in his praise for the local rival with whom he was linked at Ajax after glowing reviews from Dennis Bergkamp. "Anyone who loves football will like the way [Arsenal] have played the last few years and the players they have there," he continues, acknowledging the injured Özil as a personal influence.
"You can learn from anyone who plays your position. But when I was at Ajax I used to look at how he played for Real. I've not watched him much at Arsenal because I'm trying to find my own game here. When you look at him he is natural. He knows the people's runs around him. He knows how to run and pass the ball."
These qualities mark out Eriksen too, although there is a familiar tension in his game with the more explosive demands of big-league football. He is in many ways a fascinating player all round: a beautifully balanced two-footed playmaker who is at the same time not particularly athletic, not particularly quick, not particularly strong, not blessed with disorienting charisma or given to outlandish moments of extraordinary skill. He is instead, assiduously effective, notable above all for his peripheral vision and awareness of space, the ability to play not just the pass before a goal but the pass before the pass that makes a goal, qualities that do not so much leap out as emerge, once again, by stealth.
"It's just the type I am. I always want the ball," Eriksen says, although he has been increasingly effective of late shunted to the left in the rigid stylings of Sherwood-era Spurs. "Now we play more 4-4-2 it's a bit different to what I'm used to. But it's still, like, I can run and ask for the ball, you just have to keep your mind on that. It's free but at the same time it's English. I feel all right. I have no problems with it."
It is a studied assessment from a player whose career has been a story of calculated advance. Eriksen was a prodigy during his early years at Odense, spending time as a teenager at Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Milan and Chelsea, whom he came close to joining aged 15. "I had my mind on the Dutch league," he says. "It was much better for my development and it was where I wanted to be, so I think there was no better place than Ajax."
It was a happy move, bringing Eriksen three Eredivisie titles, 42 caps to date for Denmark and the endorsement of Johan Cruyff, who compared him to both Laudrup brothers – a form of Danish footballing canonisation – during his breakthrough season in 2010-11.
It also brought him into contact with Frank de Boer, who built the creative core of his title-winning team around the teenage Eriksen's playmaking craft. "I was with him at Ajax from the under-19 level," Eriksen says. "He gave me the responsibility to play my own game, to get involved, to get the ball and just to play, to show my talent."
De Boer has, of course, been linked with a move to Tottenham, a subject on which Eriksen remains wryly opaque: "I only had good years with Frank de Boer. I don't have anything bad to say about him."
Under De Boer Eriksen initially dropped an age group at Ajax before moving up to the first team, and tenacious adaptation has been a feature of his career. It is a process that seems likely to survive Spurs' season of flux. "I have just arrived. I have not set my mind on leaving," Eriksen says, before admitting, with just the right note of teasing deftness, that he would like to play in the Champions League in the near future. "Maybe we will get it, maybe not. But I am probably still here next season, yes."
Christian Eriksen was speaking at an event for Thomas Cook Sport, official travel partner of Tottenham Hotspur. Thomas Cook Sport offers Spurs match breaks from £119 per person, including ticket and accommodation. For more information click here or call 0844 800 9900