The Riverside Observer discusses some of the Dark Horses of the tournament to consider what their chances for success are this summer: Denmark
The first round of Group Stage fixtures has finished providing an insight into each side's chances in the Euros. This series of three sides will highlight the dark horses that may surprise a few people with how far they will progress in the tournament. While it is unlikely that these sides will win the competition, they might make it into one of the quarter-final or semi-final births should their fixtures go their way. A step further than this for these sides would see them enter footballing history alongside the likes of Greece that won the Euros in 2004.
This series will also hope to provide readers with an insight into the details of some of the sides best and worst areas that you can use to impress your friends.
While these teams are not favourites they have been touted to have a good tournament meaning that some of these sides may not be a surprise while others may well be. All the same, these sides should be in your considerations as the tournament moves into the final group stages and the knockout rounds.
Nickname: De rød-hvide (The Red and White)/Danish Dynamite
Manager: Kasper Hjulmand
One To Watch: Robert Skov
Hot Prospect: Mikkel Damsgaard
Denmark’s first game of the tournament was the sight of the most talked-about moment in the competition up to now. Christian Eriksen, Inter Milan's attacking-midfielder, dropped to the floor. Simon Kjær reacted quickly to the incident. He prevented the 29-year-old from swallowing his tongue, collaborated with Kasper Schmeichel to create a circle to offer privacy, and supported his teammates. Kasper Schmeichel also consoled Christian Eriksen’s wife on the sideline. Both players deserve credit for their actions during what was a difficult situation. Morten Bosen, Denmark medic, performed CPR after recognising a change in his condition. It was the actions of Bosen that saved Eriksen’s life: a true hero that arose in a tragic situation. He was transferred to the hospital and has since undergone investigations with no irregularities found with his heart. This was a traumatic experience for the Denmark squad. There is no telling what long-and-short term impact that the incident may have on the side and its performances on the pitch. Meanwhile, Eriksen was one of the teams most talented and intelligent forwards; his unavailability may have a detrimental impact on their hopes of a good run in the tournament. However, these are trifling issues in comparison to Eriksen’s health and the predominant issue and hope are that the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder can make a full recovery and that the medical professionals can find a solution to what had caused the incident.
Kaspar Hjulmand has one of the heroes of the Eriksen cardiac arrest to pick in goal as Kasper Schmeichel is the favourite to start between the sticks. The Leicester City goalkeeper has been very impressive in the Premier League in recent seasons and arguably the best goalkeeper in the tournament. The 34-year-old is a very impressive shot-stopper with very good reach which means that he is almost always favourite to come out on top against shots. He is good at commanding his backline; his relationship with centre back captain Simon Kjær has helped create a resolute backline. However, Hjulmand lacks quality in-depth for this position as Jonas Lössl and Fredrick Rønnow play the supporting cast. Lössl, the 32-year-old, played 15 games for Midtjylland since February and was a feature in the Championship in the 2019/2020 season. Rønnow, on the other hand, has spent the majority of his career in Germany but has rarely featured at Eintracht Frankfurt. He joined Schalke at the start of last season on loan, where he made just 11 appearances.
Denmark usually plays two highly regarded European club football centre backs in Simon Kjær and Andreas Christensen. Simon Kjær, as captain, is the first name on the team sheet for Denmark, and the 32-year-old AC Milan centre back is a commanding defender that most forwards will not want to face. Hjulmand favours Chelsea Andreas Christensen as a partner to Denmark's captain. The pair sharing a similar profile, and are comfortable bringing the ball out of defence, which is key for Hujlmand's system.
Joachim Mæhle and Daniel Wass flank this solid defensive pair in left-back and right-back births. Mæhle was a great success at KRC Genk earning a transfer to Atalanta. He has been an almost constant feature for the Italian side making 25 appearances since his January transfer. The 24-year-old has very good technique and will look to carry the ball forward when he gets the opportunity, interlink with the midfielder and play a role in the sides build up. He is a modern fullback and likes to get forward to provide the width. Yet his tireless work rate and his pace allow him to do a solid job defensively too. On the other side, Hjulmand will probably favour the experience of Daniel Wass. The Valencia central midfielder can adapt to many positions and will feel relatively comfortable in this role. There is a level of symmetry that can be achieved by playing Wass in left-back. He is comfortable playing in a similar style to Mæhle so Hjulmand to maximise Denmark’s strengths.
There is a concerning lack of quality in depth in the full-back positions. Jens Stryger Larson is favourite to take over from Mæhle should he be unavailable and in Nicolai Boilson (who made just 7 league appearances last season) Denmark has their back up for Daniel Wass. This could also be an issue in central defence. Where Denmark have Southampton giant Jannick Vestergaard, a domineering presence in both boxes, and Mathias Jørgensen that only played a bit-part role in København’s last season. Yet the first choice defenders are very good at this level. It is unlikely that they will get caught out and force a change and the backup options can augment the defence when trying to protect a lead. Then the biggest issue with the lack of depth will come if any of the first-choice defenders become unavailable and so Hjulmand will have to try and protect his defenders if he wishes to see his side go further than expected this European Championships.
Denmark typically plays with a midfield three. In this system, one midfielder sits in a deeper position rarely making forward runs, usually Thomas Delany, whose reading of the game and relatively solid defensive capabilities help to secure the space in front of the back four from potential counter-attacks. Tottenham Hotspurs Pierre Emile Højbjerg usually plays a deeper role and he is often the point of return when attacks go down a cul-de-sac. The players' ability to control the pace of the game is a massive advantage for Denmark. While his positioning, to be constantly available in deeper areas, will help the side control possession against weaker sides. However, it is the defensive side to the game that he will primarily focus on for Denmark. His contributions defensively will be key to the sides defensive structure and, building from that, their transition and build-up play. This will be particularly important against better sides where the side may see less possession. The final of the central midfield positions would have been occupied by Christian Eriksen. The talented talisman is given a more free role as the most advanced central midfielder that allowed him to pull the strings between the lines to create opportunities. Unfortunately due to recent events, it is unlikely that Eriksen will line up for Denmark again during this tournament.
Hjulmand may look to Jonas Wind to take up this role. The 22-year-old started his Euros in the centre forward position pulling away from the centre backs to get involved with play in equal measures with the wide forwards but he can also play as an attacking midfielder and should be able to adapt to the more advanced central midfielder role with relative ease. Alternatively, Denmark could line up with Mikkel Damsgaard on the side. The hot prospect of the Danish squad Damsgaard has been plying his trade in Serie A where he has impressed this season scoring 2 goals and adding 4 assists to his goal contributions tally over his 35 match season. The player is also incredibly versatile and can play in any position ahead of defensive midfield and so he would back himself to do well in the attacking central midfield role. He has also been a great success with the little experience he has had in international football scoring two goals in three games showing that he doesn’t shirk the challenge that comes with the national shirt. There are other options to pick from too with the Brentford pair Christian Norgaard and Mathias Jensen taking up the final midfield births in the 26-man squad. The pair have performed well this season at championship level helping Brentford to make it to Premier League status. However, there is quite a jump between Championship football and European Championship football and there will be questions about whether they are ready to take that jump. Mathias Jensen is the most offensive of these two options with Christian Norgaard having a predominantly defensive playing style. There is no doubt that there will be some serious questions about how to resolve the hole that has been left by Eriksen’s hospitalisation. The most likely outcome will be for Jonas Wind to take the role but there are other options available to Hjulmand the question is whether they can make the required jump to starting XI at a European tournament?
Some pundits and football specialists have pointed towards Denmark's wide births as a cause for concern. Denmark lacks natural wide players to fill these positions. Robert Skov is the only traditional wide-man in the squad and even though he has the pace and trickery to cause most fullbacks problems the lack of a similar wide player can be considered as a cause for concern and it certainly highlights that there is a lack of possible variation in the side's tactics. Yussuf Poulson and Martin Braithwaite play in these roles instead often occupying the birth that is on the opposite side to their strongest foot. This allows them to usually work within the width of the penalty area where they are most dangerous. while holding the width of the attack is more of a rarity. Martin Braithwaite is usually the more one that is more involved in the build-up play as he likes to drop deeper and play and is particularly good at being the connection between the midfield and the forwards. Poulson, on the other hand, is the more clinical finisher, used to starting from wider roles and cutting in from Nagelsmann’s unique tactics that garnered serious attention during his time in charge of Leipzig, he will look to get on the end of balls into the box with the player also offering an aerial threat.
The possibility of moving Jonas Wind into midfield means that Denmark needs a different forward to lead the line. While Andreas Cornelius is at Hjulmand’s disposal, Hjulmand will probably favour Kasper Dolberg over the target man. Kasper Dolberg rose to prominence during his time at Ajax where the player was quickly touted to have the potential to become one of the best strikers in world football. He scored 47 goals in 125 appearances for Ajax after breaking into the first team at 18. OCG Nice agreed to a fee of £18.45m for the attacker who has since dropped from prominence. Last season the striker averaged 321 minutes per goal while far from dreadful, this didn’t set the world alight as Nice finished the season in 9th place. The biggest signifier that he has struggled to hit previous heights can be seen in his expected goals to goals scored which indicates that he should have scored two more goals last season than he managed to net. The 23-year-old closed the seasons' accounts with 6 goals and 2 assists in 25 matches. However, Dolberg’s game goes further than just goalscoring as the striker is involved in the teams build up to allowing him to reproduce Wind’s output in this sense for Denmark but through his scope of talents. The player managed an impressive 81% pass completion rate last season so Denmark can use him in this interplay without concerns that their build-up will break down around the player. Additionally, the forward managed to create 18 chances last season trumping Wind’s output over the previous season. Finally, Dolberg is a workhorse and is willing to put in a dogged display when needed as he made 6 interceptions and 19 clearances last season, beating Wind on again on both accounts.
Meanwhile, Andreas Cornelius will present Hjulmand with an alternative option from the bench. Cornelius is less mobile than Dolberg and Wind so he will instead attempt to occupy the oppositions centre backs and beat them in a physical battle. His biggest threat is from aerial balls into the box as Cornelius is an aerial presence that is often valuable when chasing a goal in the latter stages of the game and the side chucks the preverbal sink at the opposition's defence. Unfortunately, Cornelius has shared Dolberg’s goalscoring woes last season as he found the net on just one occasion in 1,899 minutes of football during which time he averaged 2.87 xG showing that he has been below average in comparison to the opportunities that had arisen. Yet he will continue to be a presence, having teammates around the striker and winning the second ball could be key to get that vital goal if they are chasing a result as Cornelius has created a massive 28 chances last season. While the goalscoring return of Denmark’s forwards may be of concern the talent within the nations attacking options and their ability to create opportunities for one another should limit the damage that not having a prolific goalscorer has caused.
The Danish side has struggled to settle into a single formation under Hujlmand. While the side always plays with four defenders, three central midfielders of varying depth and three attackers there is always variation in how this is deployed. Hujlmand has used a4-2-3-1, 4-2-1-3, 4-1-2-3 and 4-3-3 during his year in charge of the club. Certain similarities in play remain regardless of formation though with the side maintaining an identity regardless of tactical tweaks. Andreas Christensen, and to a lesser extent Kjær are key to the progression of the ball, using wall passes from the deeper sitting midfielders, Pierre Emile Højberg and Thomas Delany to progress up the pitch (as seen in the match against Finland). In these midfield areas, the centre backs looked to release their creative outlet Christian Eriksen to find the wide options or bypass Eriksen if one of the wide players are available. These wide-starting players add to the direct style of football that has been fostered in the Danish squad as they look to move inside, pulling defenders, interchanging passes with one another and breaking past the defensive line. This often means that these players hold narrow positions while Joachim Mæhle an attacking fullback and Daniel Wass provide the width to the attack. Both of these players are willing to provide crosses into the box should the opportunity arise but they also willing to recycle the ball if needed.
The general formation may be unsettled but their defensive structure is not. Hujlmand has drilled his side into a 4-5-1 defensively aiming to sit in two deep sitting lines of defence that restrict space in the mid-and-half-spaces with the side relatively content with allowing the opposition to control possession. Once the ball is retrieved Denmark attempt to spark a counter using their direct philosophy to cause serious problems for the opposition.
The biggest issue with Denmark is the saddening situation with Christian Eriksen. This moment didn’t only cause a great deal of emotional distress for everyone within the Danish camp but it also meant that they were far from being in the best frame of mind to finish the Finland match later in the day, resulting in a dejected performance that saw them slump to a 1-0 defeat. The central attacking midfielder was pivotal to Hjulmand’s tactical system too and so while he does have options to replace the player they are notable downgrades on a consistent Champions League performer. That could mean that the quarter-finals, their target coming into the tournament, maybe a step too far. However the side is well drilled, Hjulmand’s defensive and direct structure may mean that they could overcome the heavy knockback of the first game to break through the group stages and into the round of 16. Their advancement from there onwards will be dependant on what side they face but they should have enough to be seriously considered as a contender for the quarter-finals.
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