England are one game away from reaching their first major tournament final since 1966, but on their way stands a team that has become Euro 2020 history. Gareth Southgate will be more than aware that despite majority support at Wembley, it is Denmark who will be the favorites of the neutrals to advance to the final, after a momentous run which saw the team win hearts both at home and across the world. .
The consensus is that after Christian Eriksen collapsed in their opening game of the tournament, Denmark were carried to this stage by a wave of emotion. But while that was certainly true in their group matches in Copenhagen, Kasper Hjulmand’s side showed their credentials in the round of 16. After losing their first two games, Denmark have now won three games in a row to advance to the semi-finals and are a remarkable team in their own right.
Their latest victory, a 2-1 win over the Czech Republic in the last eight, was built on tactical versatility and supreme organization, elements of their game that proved to be as important in their race to the semi-finals as heart and emotion. As the Danes won in Baku, there were certainly enough signs on display to suggest England will face the challenge, although it may seem like a dream draw for the Three Lions on paper.
Denmark has already defied logic to get there. From a purely football perspective, the loss of Eriksen in their opener forced Hjulmand to tear up his tournament plans and start from scratch, but after starting the group stages in 4-2-3 -1, the country moved to 3-4-3 has been fluid and will force Southgate to think about its own tactics ahead of Wednesday’s semi-final.
Although he hadn’t used it before the tournament, Hjulmand forged his team into this system and it once again gave them the advantage against the Czechs, especially in the first half of their 2-1 victory. Joachim Maehle has been the biggest benefactor of the change and is the obvious threat after another sublime display from the left-back, and the way the Danes play on the pitch certainly looks designed to give him as much space as possible.
With Thomas Delaney and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in the midfield, the Danes are comfortable moving the ball forward on the pitch. Delaney is the most progressive midfielder, but he and Hojbjerg are looking to receive assists from the defensive line. Denmark’s top three are also looking to surrender and make themselves available, while their positioning has also caused problems for opposing defenses.
Kasper Dolberg became their central option and against the Czechs Martin Braithwaite and Mikkel Damsgaard were given the freedom to move and exchange positions behind him. They will tend to drift to either side of the ball, which also unleashes Denmark’s greatest strength – their full-backs, especially the excellent Maehle.
By overloading one side of the pitch, Denmark are looking to create space for the winger on the opposite side and it was thanks to this approach in Baku that they scored their second goal of the game. Braithwaite entered from the left to join Dolberg and Damsgaard from the right edge of the penalty area, before Denmark came back and passed the game to Maehle, who was in space on the other side.
The Atalanta player still had a long way to go but the quality of his cross with the outside of his favorite right foot was in line with the high level of play he has produced so far in this tournament, and has given Dolberg in form a boost for his third goal in two games. It was also a deliberate ploy, which Denmark sought to work on throughout the first half. This could be demonstrated by Denmark’s middle positions against the Czechs, with their attackers coming in and creating space for Maehle on the outside.
After appearing comfortable with their two-goal lead, Patrik Schick’s goal shortly after the break seemed to shake Denmark for some time. The changes for the Czechs at half-time allowed Jaroslav Silhavy’s side to play more directly and engage more numbers in their attacks.
It was at this point that Denmark highlighted their versatility by moving to a 4-4-2 diamond, striker Yussuf Poulson making an impact with his fresh legs on the counterattack and then 5-3-2 as ‘they were falling deep to see them come out of the game. Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen, who has been excellent in his three fullbacks throughout this tournament, also pushed forward holding the midfielder at times, which was a decision the Denmark put it to good use when it stopped Wales in the round of 16.
Hjulmand’s changes have been effective. The Czechs had few chances in the final stages and Denmark relied on the strength of their three defenders to see them cross the finish line. Simon Kjaer has been particularly impressive in these final moments, as well as Hojbjerg, a reminder that this is a team full of strong characters and personalities as well as talented individuals.
They didn’t quite hit the peaks of their performance against Wales, but it was a confident display of a tactically flexible side who were able to make the right adjustments in order to play with their strengths and exploit the weaknesses of his opponent. From England’s perspective, closing the threat from Maehle will be an area of focus for Southgate in the days leading up to Wednesday’s semi-final. England managed to override the German full-backs in the round of 16, so a return to 3-4-3 and a recall from Kieran Trippier on Maehle’s preferred flank would come as no surprise.