In the final match of the group, Denmark lost to Australia (0:1). Losing from the 60th minute, the Danes had to score two, but in reality, they just rolled the ball a lot – almost without aggravation. Sometimes there was even a feeling that the team was completely satisfied with the score.
It was especially painful to watch this picture after Euro 2020, where the team of Kasper Hjulmand gathered audience sympathy with bright dynamic football. The World Cup is a whirlwind of new experiences, fashions, and feelings. Read up about it in our article “Emotions, trends, and sensations of the World Cup 2022″.
The failure of Denmark is extremely unusual (the roster has only become stronger in a year and a half). Therefore, watching the disaster was even more painful.
Here are the three most common failure scenarios (of any command):
1. The team wasn’t that good, to begin with, and expectations are high due to a random outburst last season (last tournament).
2. The team has become weaker – it has lost important elements (leader, coach) or simply aged.
3. The team did not play worse, but at the tournament, everything was against them – the referee’s decision, a difficult draw, and bad luck at their own and other people’s gates.
In various forms, these explanations and justifications are found everywhere – from commentaries to analytical texts. The details of each case are different, but these scenarios describe the main directions well. In this case, at least we have a clear understanding of failures – 99% of disappointments can be written into one of these scenarios. The peculiarity of the Danish failure is that classical factors (even a combination of scenarios) poorly explain the nature of the disaster. Let’s check Denmark on these points.
First scenario: Denmark reached the semi-finals of Euro 2020. In my opinion, even this stage was deserved a year and a half ago. But in this case, the question is different: is Denmark good enough to be considered a playoff team in international competitions and the second favorite in the group with Australia and Tunisia? Definitely pull this status. The Danes could be overestimated, expecting noise from them in the playoffs, but the expectation of going out of the group is clearly not in the category of overestimation. Therefore, overestimation cannot explain THAT terrible result.
The second option: has Denmark become weaker in composition? The team has one significant loss – Simon Kier, who was in top form at the Euro, and now he slowed down but was still in the squad (he could have been the leader of the dressing room). On the other hand, a strong winger Jesper Lindström appeared (shone for Eintracht in the LE), central defender Joakim Andersen has grown a lot, Alexander Ba (the basis of Benfica) and Rasmus Christensen (also noted in the LE with ” Salzburg” and deserved a transfer to the Premier League). Significantly added Andreas Skov Olsen. Valuable Premier League experience with Brentford came from Christian Nergaard and Matthias Jensen. Christian Eriksen was available throughout the tournament.
Yes, this is not enough to talk about Denmark reaching the same level as the true favorites, but in relation to themselves in 2021, they added to the depth of the squad, and an interesting coach Kasper Hjulmand had another year and a half to work on tactics. Composition can’t exactly explain.
The third scenario assumes a good game for the team, but an unfair relegation due to external factors. We also dismiss. Denmark played terribly. Hjulmand’s team played only a small segment in the second half against the French national team with really high quality. The rest of the time on the field was not at all the team that we remember from the Euro.
The failure of Denmark does not fit into the usual patterns and sends us into a speculative search. I will try to offer you my interpretation, saying right away that there are not all the answers, and the departure of Denmark became the main surprise of the tournament for me by a margin.
Perhaps Denmark is better off without Eriksen
Remember how Euro 2020 started? Scheme 4-3-3, Christian Eriksen at the start, modest Finland in rivals – for the half in this combination there was 64% of possession, but no obvious moments at all. Doesn’t it remind you of anything?
Then the tragic story of Eriksen with a happy ending happened, which rallied the team and pushed Hjulmand to tactical searches right during the tournament. The Danes started the next match in a 3-4-3 formation, which brought them success. One of the key elements of this scheme was simplicity, which helped to realize the idea so quickly. That is, the idea was bold and well thought out, but easily fell on the natural qualities of the players.
Let’s remember the key mechanisms of that command:
• High pressure, which starts with a narrow three of an attack and is often built on a personal basis – it is important that there are no passengers in the squad;
• High positions of laterals during own attacks. They acted boldly, but simply – they closed the flank to the stop;
• Wing players in the top three were given the opportunity to move to the center and play supporting roles – on the left, Mikkel Damsgaard became a hidden ten (opened between the lines), and Martin Braithwaite was located next to Kasper Dolberg (or Poulsen) as a second striker. Simple and convenient transformations for everyone;
• Five defensive players (three defenders and two defensive players) were involved in the promotion. Heibjerg is great at breaking lanes with low passes, and Delaney is good at translations. They could also alternately join the attack;
This combination provided the most effective combination of the natural qualities of the best Danish players without Eriksen. It is very tempting to hypothesize that Denmark is simply stronger without a leader due to team ties. In practice, this assumption is more likely not confirmed if we take the distance, and not just big tournaments, but there are 100% differences in dynamics with and without Christian. It is important to speak to them.
Is it possible to combine Eriksen with other Danish leaders? Yes, but it’s more difficult football in a completely different way. Can it be built at the prefabricated level? Rather yes than no. On the other hand, it is significant that Hjulmand was afraid to play like that at the World Cup.
We saw a powerful variation with Eriksen in the qualification, which the Danes went through almost flawlessly (9 wins in 10 matches with a goal difference of “+27”), and in the League of Nations (where they beat France twice). For the optimal placement of the Manchester United midfielder, the team returned to the 4-3-3 formation.
This formation involves more difficult interactions – the transformation of the center of the field through the position of Eriksen (sometimes an eight, sometimes a ten), Damsgaard’s shifts to the holding position should not interfere with Christian’s movement, even more volume and courage are required from the full-backs to support the attack. All these mechanisms can really be debugged. Denmark did well until it was time for really important meetings.
At the exit before the tournament, Denmark had two effective plans. The first is the option with Euro 2020 without Eriksen (easier in terms of interactions). The second is a 4-3-3 with Eriksen and more difficult formations (not perfect, but already well-built). It is ironic that at the World Cup, due to Yulmand’s experiments, we did not see these options in any match – there was always something in between and a compromise.
The experiments of Hjulmand nailed Denmark – there was excessive courage and excessive reinsurance, but there was no balance
In three matches, Denmark used three different formations. There was already a spoiler above that none of them looked like the usual working options. The team drowned in unnecessary experiments. Let’s say them in chronological order:
• Round one against Tunisia – Hjulmand uses a 3-5-2 with Eriksen in midfield. This is a compromise option – the basis is taken from Euro 2020, but Eriksen is integrated into midfield instead of one of the attacking three. It turns out a less bold option in terms of pressure and saturation of the attack. Exactly the best plan for Tunisia?
In the second half, the team switched to 4-3-3 and had the best stretch of the match. After rebuilding in the 65th minute it was 7-0 on shots (5 from the box, 2 from the goalie) and 68% of possession. This a strong hint that this is how it was worth starting this match – alas, Hjulmand was carried away by reinsurance.
• Second match against France – 3-4-3, where Eriksen comes out in the defensive zone. Structurally, this was the Euro 2020 option, only the center was frighteningly open. Christian had a tremendous amount of work to do in demolition. France opened frighteningly often and could decide the outcome of the meeting in the first half. Why was it so adventurous to play with France?
And yet it was in this meeting in the second half that there was a segment in which the old Denmark was recognized. Obviously not enough for the result, but the only one in the tournament.
The final match against Australia is 4-3-3 with Eriksen, but no connections built in qualifying. For example, in place of Damsgaard, a completely different type of Lindstrom came out. There were huge problems with filling the base and with mutual understanding of the flanks.
Let’s fix it once again: there has never been a 3-4-3 scheme without Eriksen, but 4-3-3 appeared only in the last round and without the necessary details. Hjulmand used an inverted tactic – too cowardly against Tunisia and too bold against France. In this context, it’s damn ironic that it was Australia who knocked out Denmark.
As I said, the complete failure of Denmark cannot be explained by tactics. Hjulmand made mistakes in every match, and never got to the combinations that he had come up with earlier, but with such an advantage in the level of players over Tunisia and Denmark, these mistakes should not have cost so much.
There are definitely psychological factors as well. For example, yesterday at 0:1 Denmark was in no hurry to go anywhere – it might seem that the score suits them. Can’t compare it to the intensity of the team at Euro 2020 (even in matches where not everything worked out).
This is partly due to the fan factor. Denmark had home matches at the Euros, and after the Eriksen story, the team found amazing unity with the fans. There was no better atmosphere in any other group. Now some of the fans have boycotted the tournament. Denmark did not even have the necessary support, not to mention a single magical impulse that helps to create miracles.