White Knights of Euro 2021: With Christian Eriksen back, Denmark are more than just dark horses at the FIFA World Cup

When Christian Eriksen fell face first onto the Parken Stadium turf in Copenhagen, football was the least of the concerns for the 40,000 in attendance for Denmark vs Finland, or the millions tuning in through screens from around the world.

Engulfed in the darkness of the heart-stopping episode, awaiting a statement from UEFA, the two sets of supporters created one of football’s all time moments as they shared Eriksen’s chant that was heard around the world. The Finland fans chanting, ‘Christian’, Denmark fans answering, ‘Eriksen.’ A magical moment that kickstarted a wave of emotional support for the Danish team at the Euros. And on that wave, they rode to produce a goosebumps-inducing campaign that almost ended with an appearance in the final.

A campaign whose spirit, in words of coach Kasper Hjulmand, ‘is definitely still here’ 17 months later as the Danes embark on their World Cup campaign playing Tunisia on Tuesday.

Denmark would want to take off from where they left the world rooting for them at Euros. For they were onto something with their fizzing hard pressing attack in their game.

Attack, the best defence: What made them successful last year

That old footie stereotype was given a gushing red paint job as Denmark-Euro 2021 mark two went all out with an intense pressing and attacking-in-numbers style of play.

While Christian Eriksen was the kingpin who oversaw their midfield operations with smooth passing and ballet-like buildup within a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, in his absence, Kasper Hjulmand switched to a more progressive 3-4 -3, open to adjustment 3-4-2-1 system.

After going 0-1 down to Finland, Denmark scored 12 goals in the next five matches, finishing only behind the joint top scorers Italy and Spain. Of the total minutes they played, the Danes would score 1.89 goals per 90 minutes. Only Netherlands (2) averaged better at the tournament.

It was simple math. More shots with more accuracy lead to more goals. If only the world was this simple. For Denmark, maybe it was. For 90 minutes, Denmark registered 14.37 shots every tournament, only behind Spain (16.14) and Italy (15.87). On target for 90 (5.84), they were more efficient than the eventual winners Italy (4.50).

How everyone chipped in

The Denmark machinery may have looked solid up front but it required all the pieces from the goal stopper to goal scorers in making that happen.

Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was a major contributor in the team moving the ball upwards, having the fourth-highest progressive passing distance (2996) in the competition.

Captain Simon Kjaer looked behind when Denmark progressed forward in numbers. With a successful pressure percentage of 44.7, not far behind number one Aymeric Laporte (51.9%), Kjaer acted as the perfect channel to hold the defensive line while others penetrated forwards.

Jannik Vestergaard and Andreas Christensen made for the other two in the backline. Between them, the duo won 37 aerials, highest by any pair in the competition.

Moving forward the wing backs, as you’d expect, played an important part in the transition from four at the back to three. In the road to the semis, while left back Joakim Maehle carried the ball more times into the penalty area than any other player (12), right back Jens Stryger Larsen would deliver joint-third most crosses into the box to add variety into the Danish wing back system.

In the central midfield, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg took over as the chief point guard with a total of 24 shot creating actions, fourth-best at the 2021 Euro, leading to three direct assists.

Denmark’s Kasper Dolberg, second left, celebrates scoring with teammates Christian Eriksen, center right, Joachim Maehle and Andreas Skov Olsen, right, during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Denmark and France at Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, Denmark, Sunday Sept. 25, 2022. (Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix via AP)

Mikkel Damsgaard, who replaced Christian Eriksen in the XI, produced moments that seemed beyond the realm of stats, notably his two goals, against Russia and England. However, when you look at the fact that both those goals had an Expected Goals rate of 0.03, they seem even more ridiculously good.

In the knockouts against Wales and the Czech Republic, Kasper Dolberg scored three of Denmark’s six goals. The 25-year-old finished the tournament with a goals/90 minutes rate (1.21) only second to Cristiano Ronaldo (1.25).

Return of the prodigal son, evolution of the team

But there is more to teams than numbers.

The Eriksen scare was a moment in Danish history, that will linger long for how it tugged at emotion in the game. When he went down, Finnish midfielder Robin Lod raised both his hands, signaling towards the benches. Referee Anthony Taylor immediately stopped play. Denmark captain Simon Kjaer rushed to help place his unconscious teammate in a recovery position. He’d later rush to the other side of the pitch with goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel to comfort Eriksen’s distracted partner near the touchline.

The rest of the Danish players stood around their teammate as he received medical attention, in tears. A bunch of Finnish fans dropped their flags to help them cover Eriksen during the treatment and when he was being stretchered off the pitch on his way to the nearby Rigshospitalet. Their players were down on their knees near the touchline. All of this being broadcast live on the Euro 2021 tournament world feed as the cameras never went off.

For Finland, this was their first appearance as a nation in a major football tournament. For Denmark and Copenhagen, a first instance of hosting a major football tournament. An occasion of celebrations had turned into a nightmare for the two Nordic nations when one of their own suffered, as it would be discovered later, from a cardiac arrest.

Approximately nine months after he last played in a Denmark shirt, Christian Eriksen only took two minutes to score a sumptuous curling goal against the Netherlands during the March international break.

Contrary to primitive opinions, Denmark haven’t gone back to their old four at the back system with Eriksen returning in the XI. More interestingly however, they haven’t stuck with their three man defensive line either. Much to Darwin’s fear, the theory of evolution in the Denmark system meant they could be whatever they wished to be, whenever they wished to be.

The two fixtures they played against the world champions in the Nations League act as a museum display of the same.

Back in June, when Denmark traveled to the Stade de France they shaped up in a slightly more conservative version of their 3-4-3 system that shifted to five at the back whilst defending deep and moved up front on counters. A successful tactic that helped them take home a 2-1 win after going 1-0 down.

Three months later, when they hosted France at the Parken Stadium, Christian Eriksen started in his natural number 10 place in a 4-3-3 setup that developed attacking moves more often and were successful in pinning the pressure early with two first half goals that provided Denmark with a 2-0 win in what was their last game in the lead up to the World Cup. At the Parken Stadium in the Danish capital, a year and half long story arc has seen everything in football and beyond.

The question still remains, when you hear someone tag Denmark as the dark horses of this World Cup, how do you resist? How do you resist from responding, a team that beat the world champions twice within three months deploying two different systems can’t be dark horses. A team that stood strong around and without Christian Eriksen, and are now back with him at the World Cup can’t be dark horses. They have got to be more.

Eye-popping Denmark stats from Euros

37 – Jannik Vestergaard and Andreas Christensen between them won 37 aerials, highest by any pair in the competition.

12 – Left back Joakim Maehle carried the ball more times into the penalty area than any other player (12).

1.21 – Kasper Dolberg scored three of Denmark’s six goals and the 25-year-old finished the tournament with a goals/90 mins rate of 1.21, only second to Cristiano Ronaldo (1.25).

2996 – Kasper Schmeichel was a major contributor in the team moving the ball upwards, having the 4th highest progressive passing distance (2996) in the competition.

24 – Central midfield Pierre-Emile Højbjerg took over as the chief point guard with a total of 24 shots creating actions, fourth best at the 2021 Euro, leading to three direct assists.

12 – Denmark scored 12 goals after the Finland loss, finishing only behind the joint top scorers Italy and Spain.

1.89 – The Danes scored 1.89 goals for 90 minutes. Only Netherlands (2) averaged better at the tournament.

2.37pm – Denmark’s shots for 90 minutes rate of 14.37 was only behind Spain (16.14) and Italy (15.87)

5.84 – Denmark were more efficient with shots on target for 90 minutes (5.84) than the eventual winners Italy (4.50).

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