Fiercely driven, the Southampton captain is leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of a place at the very top of football's elite level.
Spend half an hour in the company of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and you’ll come away believing Southampton can win the Premier League, never mind survive in it.
The skipper’s rousing speeches have earned him cult status on the south coast, but rest assured his passionate tone is not reserved for the cameras after a tough result.
Højbjerg is the same away from the public eye – a fiercely driven character determined to make the absolute most of his career, not just enjoy the ride.
It’s six o’clock by the time he negotiates a line of questioning that centres more on his fixated mental approach than Saints per se, though naturally they are linked: family, football, focus.
“I don’t do very much, but what I do has to be the best possible,” he says.
“I don’t like the word perfectionist, because it can sometimes be overdone and overthought, but to be the best you can be and still have an edge is very important. That creates who you are.”
When you consider his level of dedication, it’s hardly surprising he hasn’t the time for much else.
Højbjerg is not one to do the bare minimum, and the sun is lowering by the time he’s ready to sit down for a chat. For context, it was a late start and the players did not come in until midday – one day a week Ralph Hasenhüttl tends to give them the morning off.
For the Danish international, work is not far off the eight-hour day you expect from an office job, albeit handsomely rewarded at the highest level.
“Sometimes my wife is not so happy if I come home at five o’clock, but I just say there was traffic. This year there has been a lot of traffic,” he laughs.
“Sometimes I leave at three o’clock, sometimes not until 4.30. I’m probably one of the last, without trying to be.”
He points out his strict regime is not to impress anybody or make him feel good about himself. It’s just what he believes has to be done to hit his peak on a matchday.
Højbjerg’s commitment is widely known around Staplewood. He’s always off doing something – if it’s not extra work in the gym or a massage, he’s in the swimming pool, having an ice bath or torturing himself in the cryotherapy chamber at extreme temperatures.
That’s not to say others don’t do the same, but his schedule does appear particularly relentless. However engaging he is to interview, tracking him down is the hard bit.
“Nowadays football is very quick and demanding, so you have to be ready all the time,” he reasons, feeling the need to justify himself.
“For me it’s about preventing [injury], but also pushing the limits to get stronger, quicker and better.
“The mentality is about always progressing – that’s why I do the stuff that I do. I don’t do it because I want to be the last to leave. I do it because this is what I think I need to do to become the best Pierre I can be.”
The way he talks belies his youth. Aged 23, Højbjerg discusses life and human behaviours like a seasoned philosopher. Shaped, he says, by personal experiences.
He’s grown up fast because he’s had no choice. At 17, he left his homeland to sign for one of the biggest clubs in the world, Bayern Munich.
A year later, he was mourning the death of his father. It’s not mentioned in this interview, but Højbjerg has previously explained the grief he suffered in coming to terms with his passing.
“My mentality and the person I became was because of him and my family. I really looked up to him. There were always big fights between us, but he was a big idol of mine,” he was quoted in SAINTS last season.
Remember ‘family, football, focus’? After moving to England in 2016, he was left with a huge void in two of them: his father was gone and his quest for more game time had hit a brick wall.
That meant greater emphasis on focus – the point at which Højbjerg admits he was working himself into the ground.
He would find himself arriving back to Staplewood in the early hours following a midweek away game and heading straight to the gym, because he had not played in the match.
“I did it in a time when I wasn’t playing and I was home alone with nobody waiting on me,” he recalls.
“There was also some anger and negative energy that had to be used, but it’s not something I would recommend doing.
“Sometimes digging the hole that is already deep does not make you better or worse – it doesn’t get you anywhere.
“The emotional management in my life and in my career has been really progressing because I work a lot on it.
“What is driving me is the heart and the love and the passion, but without the mind and the cleverness, you sometimes make mistakes, because you’re not clear in your mind.
“Being able to be very passionate but still very clear with a specialised mindset is when you get a strong combination. This is what I’m trying to work on.”
pierre-emile højbjergi'm very emotional; i get sucked into what i do a lot, so if it's not going well i'm not happy - not just in football, in everything.
Højbjerg’s passion – perhaps his greatest strength – has, on the flip side, seen him miss six games through suspension this season.
“Sometimes my passion takes over my control, but I will work hard on this and come back stronger,” he said of his red card against Manchester City in December. He’s been booked only once in the six matches since his return.
“I think it comes from emotions,” he adds. “I’m very emotional; I get sucked into what I do a lot, so if it’s not going well I’m not happy – not just in football, in everything.
“If you’re just driven by your passion that’s good, but to be excellent you still need a very high-level mindset. The passion gets you to the top, the mindset is how you stay there.”
Eighteen months ago, the arrival of daughter Rosa gave him a reason to give up the late-night gym sessions. Eventually, he forced himself back into the team.
“It’s always easy to say that kids help you to relax more, but you just get a different perception of what life is about,” he explained.
“After I had my daughter, you learn to enjoy more just going to relax. Sometimes it’s better to do less than to do more.
“It all sounds a bit crazy but it’s quite simple – it’s knowing your body, knowing your mind and finding the right balance and the right feeling. “Sometimes there are days when I need to go to the pizzeria and have double cheese, sit there and drink a cola! You know what I mean? Sometimes that’s what you need.”
After more than his fair share of setbacks, Højbjerg now sees himself on an upward curve, steepened when handed the captain’s armband – a popular decision among Saints supporters.
But what would he have said last season, had he been told he would be leading the team a year later?
“I would’ve asked if you were drunk! But it’s a Wednesday, so that would be difficult,” he says, soon turning serious. Højbjerg doesn’t drink on a school night.
“Maybe my biggest strength is not on the pitch, but my personality. That’s where I’ve grown the most and that’s what’s come out at Southampton Football Club.
“I got to be the true Pierre that I am because of all that happened at the club, because of all I did, all I put in and the people who were here on the way.
“I’ve grown the most I’ve ever grown in my life in the past three years at Southampton Football Club. I hope that I can continue to grow.
“I just love to come to training and I love to go on the pitch every Saturday. I love it. I really love it.
“I want to do my best. It’s quite simple. I talk about having the right mindset and the right doses of this and that, but in the end, I love what I do and that’s the biggest part.”
You sense Højbjerg revels in football’s tribalism – us against them. He says the captaincy has made him more conscious of his actions, before embarking on another speech Winston Churchill would be proud of.
“I’m a bit more aware of what I say and what I do, but I’m not changing the base of who I am,” he continues.
“I have to be even more aware of other things. How is the team doing? How are my teammates? Does someone need help?
“I go and fight for what I love, which is Southampton Football Club and football. I give myself everything, so I need to look people in the eyes and feel people: who do I want to go to war with?
“I believe that if everybody takes their responsibility, if everybody is brave and mentally prepared to show their qualities in the same system and in the same way, we have a fantastic team – but only then.
“Suddenly you play against Southampton and you know, ‘I have to go for a fight now, I have to go to war’. That’s what I want from my team.
“After that, the quality comes out and the moments happen, but if you don’t have this basic of a high level, you get inconsistency.
“It’s about building a group that is ready for war, that is willing to do everything for each other to achieve the targets we set for the team and the coach, but most importantly for Southampton Football Club and the fans, because when we win, we feel it together.”
Such words will continue to endear him to his people; the heart-on-sleeve approach to complement his technical qualities of reading the game, initiating attacks through forward passing and unleashing explosive shots from his tree-trunk thighs.
“I’m not on social media, so I feel the love of the people that I see, but I’m not aware of what is said in the background,” he replies, modestly, when quizzed on his popularity.
“There will be good and bad times, but if you are all in the same direction and all love the same thing, I think you can all work together and like each other.
“That’s what I can say from where I sit – I can’t say what they say outside the club, but from my point of view what I feel is a connection from Under-10s to the top of the Board, with the owners and directors, and to every single fan from 98 years old to two years old.
“For me, that’s the most important thing – to feel the people that I am dealing with. That is a big pleasure, but also a big disappointment if you lose. It’s a responsibility that I like because I feel we are all working in the same direction. That is a good feeling.
“I never had Twitter. I had Instagram and used it the first year I played here. I think it’s very good if you want a market on social media and some PR that can benefit you.
“I also think it’s someone you have to be, and I’m not that. Maybe one day I’ll get back on it, but I’m not beautiful enough to take selfies all the time. I just need a better tan – then I would have Ronaldo potential!”
The purpose with which Højbjerg speaks, his analytical nature and clear fascination in motivational tactics all point to managerial potential – a hunch he unknowingly reinforces after the interview.
Walking through reception at Staplewood, he spots a young teenager waiting for a lift home. He’s not even in his eyeline, but he takes the time to ask the boy how training went, before politely holding doors open for colleagues.
He’s the star, but understands the importance of making others feel that way about themselves.
“Do I want to be a manager? I don’t know. I don’t want to be a bad manager,” he says. It’s a rare chink of self-doubt.
“I would love to say yes, because there are a lot of things I see on the pitch with other players and also my own game where I almost want to play the game with a joystick, to be in control of everything. That’s the person I am.
“What I do know is that I’ll work with people. In football? That I cannot say.
“I don’t want to take my family out across the world and not be a manager who set his stamp on football. I want to be remarkable.”
pierre-emile højbjergmaybe one day i'll get back on it (social media), but i'm not beautiful enough to take selfies all the time. i just need a better tan - then i would have ronaldo potential!
One lesson learned from interviewing Højbjerg is that it’s not always easy to keep him trained on one subject – such is this infectious passion he possesses, he’ll go off on tangents that leave both of you forgetting what the original question was.
One of those centres around the Premier League title race – something he uses as an example to justify his belief that “mindset” is the biggest influence on success at the elite level.
Højbjerg believes Manchester City will lift the trophy “because mentally they know what they have to do.”
“I believe the difference between a good player and a world-class player is not always the quality. Most of the time it’s the mindset,” he observes, before revealing his own personal ambitions.
“You can tell me I’m wrong, but I believe if I want to be a world-class player, it’s about the mindset. How far am I prepared to go? How hard am I prepared to work?
“For anybody to play in the Premier League you need a certain quality. The difference between number one and number three is the mindset.
“I want to be a Premier League winner and a Champions League winner. I want to be a world-class player one day. That’s my dream. There’s a long way to go still, but I’m motivated to do whatever it takes.
“Perfectionist? I wouldn’t say so. Ambitious to be the best I can be? I would say yes. And it doesn’t matter what I do.”
Whether Højbjerg’s destiny is to become world class on the pitch, in the technical area, both or neither, anybody looking to hire an inspirational speaker at the end of his career should look no further.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE SKIPPER…
9am arrive at Staplewood
10.15am team meeting
2.30pm ice bath
2.40pm hot bath
3.30pm media duties (occasional)
4pm depart Staplewood
*Pierre uses the sauna at the start of the week, then the cryotherapy chamber 24/48 hours before a game to prepare his body.