Danish dark horses serving up style and subtance
Two teams in Denmark's football history have shaped the nation. One of them made headlines by winning the UEFA EURO in 1992, while the other was defeated 5-1 by Spain and eliminated from the 1986 FIFA World CupTM in the round of 16.
A few people would wonder why the latter still commands greater affection. But in this country, the triumph of that tenacious, effective 1992 team is weighed against the flamboyance of its allegedly unsuccessful forebears.
Kasper Hjulmand, the current coach, summed it up perfectly. “People can say that that 1980s team didn’t win anything, but they won hearts; football fans across the world were talking about them,” he told FIFA last year. “It was a team that made a real impact with the football they played, and I think that’s a big thing.”
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However, Hjulmand is not a hopeless romantic who prioritizes style above content. His goal has always been to create a team that excels in both the 1986 and 1992 eras by winning in a way that pleases Danes and impresses outsiders.
His team nearly won the tournament at EURO 2020 after overcoming the horror of their top player experiencing an on-field heart collapse in the first game to have a goal-filled run to the semifinals. Even more impressive was their performance in World Cup qualification, where they clinched a spot in Qatar 2022 with a few games remaining and did not drop a point or give up a goal. It is simple to understand why the Danes are mentioned as prospective championship challengers when two UEFA Nations League victories against the world champions in as little as four months are added.
It has already been said that they might surpass those teams from 1986 and 1992 in the hearts of the country due to the manner in which they have accomplished all of this, combined with the human traits Hjulmand and his players demonstrated following Christian Eriksen's fall. And the person in charge is aware of what must be done to make it happen.
"We have two goals with this team: one is to win something, and the other is to inspire and unite our country,"he has said. "Right now we can really feel that we're doing that second part. The next step, of course, is to win."
Denmark's Group D fixtures
Denmark-Tunisia, 16:00 local time, Education City Stadium
France-Denmark, 19:00 local time, Stadium 974
Australia-Denmark, 18:00 local time, Al Wakrah
Hjulmand’s approach and tactics
When he first took over, there wasn't much that needed changing, as the Denmark coach has been eager to point out. Age Hareide, the team's predecessor, had, after all, guided them to two significant tournaments and put up a string of 34 victories.
With those foundational elements in place, Hjulmand's key contribution has been to give an already strong and successful team a touch of the 1986 spirit. In comparison to Hareide's Denmark, his team plays less directly, is more expansive and attacking, and uses a higher, more aggressive press.
Hjulmand has also emphasized tactical adaptability, refusing to commit to a certain formation and frequently switching systems in the middle of a game. Despite the favoured set-up of the day, some characteristics—such as the use of high, attacking full-backs and the provision of creative license to players like Eriksen—remain.
The Denmark coach also brings an invaluable human touch to his role. Never was this more in evidence than in the wake of his star playmaker’s health emergency at EURO 2020, when he struck the perfect tone with his players and the wider public. As Joakim Maehle, his free-scoring full-back, said at the time: “He is a good coach and now a friend for us too.”
Key player: Christian Eriksen
Simon Kjaer might be Denmark's skipper, and an inspirational one at that, but Eriksen has been described by the team's coach as "our captain in the rhythm of the game, the reading of the game and the feeling of a match". "His eyes see everything,"added Hjulmand. "That's how he leads. He is the heart and rhythm of this team."
Eriksen has actually been Denmark's most important player for the better part of a decade and was the team's undeniable star as they qualified for and took part in the 2018 World Cup. He is the current team's most effective creator and leading scorer with 38 goals. However, many questioned if he would ever return such a prominent role after that shocking on-field cardiac collapse, during which time Denmark prospered without him.
The nature of his subsequent progress for both club and country has, of course, removed any doubt. After watching him score with his first touch on his comeback in the Netherlands, then net on his return to the Parken Stadium, Hjulmand spoke of "seeing a relaxation and lightness in Christian's game which is fantastic".
The Denmark coach went as far as to suggest the team might "get something even better out of Christian for the next few years". Given Eriksen's outstanding international exploits to date, that is a prospect that will leave the team's fans salivating.
One to watch: Mikkel Damsgaard
Damsgaard stepped into the Eriksen-shaped creative void at EURO 2020 and emerged as the one of the tournament's standout players.
At the time, he played up to the role of eager apprentice. "I really looked up to Christian when I was younger and played more like a No10, just like him,"said the then Sampdoria youngster. "I looked at many of the details in his game, the space that he finds, and I tried to include that in my game from a really young age."
However, despite the possibility that Eriksen's incredible comeback would force his highly regarded deputy to the bench, there is definitely room for both players to play on the same team. Damsgaard, after all, sparkled in Serie A while playing off the left, earning the nickname "a prodigy" from coach Claudio Ranieri. Indeed, the youngster came in from the wing and Eriksen was in a more central position when Denmark defeated France 2-0 in the UEFA Nations League last month.
Kasper Hjulmand, who gave a 17-year-old Damsgaard his first start at club level during their time together at Nordsjaelland, is certainly a big fan. "Mikkel is one step ahead, just one or two seconds quicker in his head [than other players],"the Denmark coach has said. "He has always had an incredibly quick awareness of time, space and movement around him."
Those qualities were very much in evidence at the EURO, and will make Damsgaard an exciting player to follow in Qatar.
Denmark’s World Cup history
The Danes have advanced past the group stage in all but one of their five World Cup appearances thus far, despite lacking the legacy of the game's titans. Although they had a fantastic start during that illustrious 1986 campaign, they turned in their best performance in 1998, defeating Olympic winners Nigeria 4-1 to get to the round of eight.
Having cruelly exited the tournament in 2018, losing to Croatia on penalties in the round of 16, the Nordic team is now hoping to create a new standard in Qatar 2022.
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