Denmark's hopes of reaching the 2012 European Championships received a Portugal sized dent in Porto last week. Despite some talented players, this doesn't look like a Danish vintage. Charlie Anderson thinks it still could be.
Watching Denmark’s defending (such as it was) in Porto, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were attempting some sort of bold, Corinthian return to the 2-3-5 of the early 20th century. Amply prompted by a Danish defensive line that resembled an aerial view of the Solomon Islands, Portugal sauntered to a 3-1 win. It would have been a more comfortable scoreline were it not for the visitors’ substitute goalkeeper repeatedly saving the Danes’ bacon. Anders Lindegaard, who plays for the Norwegian club Aalesund*, came on for the injured Thomas Sørensen at 2-0 and kept Portugal at bay until late in the second half.
What is it, then, that is remarkable about Denmark losing away to Portugal? It is not the scoreline that is troubling, or even the fact that Denmark were overrun. The issue is rather the manner in which they were torn apart. Portugal’s attacks came almost exclusively through the middle and the Danish centre-backs Simon Kjær and Per Krøldrup were repeatedly exposed. It was a remarkable sight, and the intention of this article is to explain a little about the modern Danish style of play, and why it is unusual for the modern Denmark side to be so relentlessly unable to cope with attacks from central positions.
As every Wilsonian scholar (Jonathan, not Woodrow) will know, modern tactics are centred around making the pitch large when you have the ball, and constricting space when out of possession. In Denmark’s case, this is achieved not by packing the midfield or using an aggressive offside trap to squeeze the play, but by seeking to control width. When in possession, a Danish side will often look to move the ball quickly out to a wide area, before either cutting inside or producing a cross for the striker. The reliance on consistently good crosses perhaps explains something about the disparity between Nicklas Bendtner’s form for club and country. It’s also the reason why the “beat-the-full-back-and-cross-it” school of wing play has continued to serve Denmark well despite being outmoded at the highest level since the turn of the century (see Dennis Rommedahl and Jesper Grønkjær).
The strategy of long, quick passes to the wings, though, necessitates players who are comfortable on the ball – perhaps a deep-lying playmaker or regista. In many teams, the regista is an Andrea Pirlo or Xabi Alonso figure, instigating attacking moves from deep midfield. Indeed, the South American football expert Tim Vickery can often be heard lamenting the absence of these players from the Brazilian game. Too many central midfielders, he contends, are converted centre-backs in the Gilberto Silva mould. Well if you’re reading, Tim, look away now. As Liverpool fans have been finding out this season, Denmark produces technically-limited central midfielders by the cartload. The likes of Christian Poulsen, Daniel Jensen and William Kvist are an integral part of Danish football. The national team will feature two of these destroyers at the same time, while Copenhagen use a partnership of the Brazilian Claudemir alongside Kvist again (like we did last summer). This is not necessarily to encourage cynical anti-football, but in the case of the national team at least, to provide a dual shield for the real registas – the central defenders.
If there was a goal that summed up all the themes discussed so far, it’s Denmark’s first goal in their 2-1 victory over Cameroon at World Cup 2010. With Denmark 1-0 down, the centre-back Simon Kjær receives the ball comfortably inside his own half. He fires a raking diagonal pass across the full-back to Dennis Rommedahl, who takes just one touch before squaring for Nicklas Bendtner to slide in for the equaliser. In a disarmingly short space of time, Denmark went from an innocuous situation to the back of Cameroon’s net, all without employing anything that could reasonably be described as a counter-attack. There were elements of the three-pass attacks beloved of Graham Taylor and Egil Olsen, and even perhaps a parallel with the sudden “mortar shots” from defence utilised by Helenio Herrera’s La Grande Inter in the heyday of catenaccio.
Comparisons with those storied vintages aside, how do Denmark function in the modern age? Why, with 4-2-3-1 of course. Those two deep-lying midfielders will, with a little help from a pair of primarily defensive full-backs, prevent the central-defenders from being run at. When out of possession, Denmark will quickly narrow the game, protecting Kjær and Daniel Agger – whose positioning is not always as sound as their technique – from being exposed. When in possession, the wingers will push forward almost as far as the striker, while one of the central midfielders (often Daniel Jensen) will join the attack.
As interesting as the centre-back-as-regista model is, though, it has its limitations, and will only ever work to a degree. Some teams will be able to negate this threat, whether by defending deep or forcing Denmark to play narrow. It’s important, then, that Denmark find another way to attack. Perhaps you’ve noticed that one outfield position has been neglected thus far. The central figure of the ‘3’ in Denmark’s 4-2-3-1 holds the key to turning the Danes from an interesting but functional side into a seriously competitive one
The presence of so many deep-lying midfielders in Danish football helps to negate strikers, but inevitably leaves a lot of space in midfield. Several players have recently attempted to exploit this – Kasper Lorentzen of Randers, Kim Aabech of Lyngby and, most importantly, Christian Eriksen of Ajax. Eriksen is just beginning to make his mark both on the Eredivisie and the national team, and at just eighteen is a playmaker of huge potential. Just as significant as his talent, though, is that Denmark can accommodate him without compromising the foundations of their set-up. Space can be created for a central playmaker in a number of ways – Bendtner using his considerable presence to occupy the centre-backs, or the wingers stretching the defence to name but two.
Denmark have produced talented generations before, but adaptability is a luxury rarely afforded them. The Danish Dynamite of ’86 were as thrilling as the ’92 team were stodgy. Perhaps a different way of playing would have been of use in Porto on Friday, when Kjær and Krøldrup – and the limitations of Denmark’s system – were ruthlessly exposed.
The moral of the story? There can be a use for Christian Poulsen, but it helps if the guy behind him isn’t Jamie Carragher.
* The BBC’s Gossip Column, incidentally, declared last Monday that Manchester United were scouting “Lindegaard's Norwegian 'keeper Aalesunds Anders”. Both Aalesunds Anders and his club Lindegaard appear to have been unavailable for comment, possibly due to neither actually existing – the BBC had taken the story from a tweet by the Norwegian journalist Vegard Vaagbo, yet along the way had somehow managed to get Lindegaard’s name, club and nationality wrong.
Charlie writes regularly for IBWM, but if you’d like to read more from him please make your way to The Carvalho Peninsula.