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Tactical Analysis: Denmark’s win over France shows that they can be dark horses at the World Cup

Among the nations in the top 30 of the FIFA rankings, only three have a lower population than Denmark. Yet, they are up in 10th, ahead of the likes of Germany, Mexico and United States.

They have also impressed in the Nations League, finishing just a point off top spot in a group with Austria, Croatia and France.

Their win over France on the final matchday was arguably their most impressive performance of the campaign. They did an excellent job of nullifying the defending world champions’ attack, and two very good goals before half-time were enough for the three points.

Their performances have been impressive for a good while now. Besides their impressive World Cup qualifying campaign that saw them finish with the joint-highest points tally across all the groups in Europe, who could forget their brilliant 2020 European Championship run that took them to extra time in their semi-final? This is what their xG trendline in competitive fixtures looks like from the start of that tournament to the present day:

Their defensive numbers have fluctuated a good deal due to the big gap in the quality of opposition they faced in the Euros and Nations League compared to the World Cup qualifiers, but the most impressive part is that their attack has remained relatively stable with a high trendline.

A lot of credit for this must go to Kasper Hjulmand. Head coaches are perhaps not as important at the international stage as they are on the club level, but Hjulmand has shown that a good coach can still elevate a side significantly.

He has shrewdly alternated between a back-three and back-four depending on the opposition. His players have also shown remarkable adaptability and understanding to execute these varied game plans to a tee.

For a nation with a population of about five million, Denmark have a pretty talented squad in all departments.

Between the sticks, they have Kasper Schmeichel, the son of one of the nation’s greatest players of all time. The Nice man is not a half-bad goalkeeper and has a net positive in the PSxG-Goals column across the last four seasons, meaning he is an above-average shot-stopper.

At the heart of defence, captain Simon Kjær is an indispensable asset thanks to his leadership qualities. Alongside him, Andreas Christensen is a great partner from a footballing point of view. His ball progression ability is invaluable for Hjulmand’s side, irrespective of whether they are playing with three or two centre-backs.

On the sides, they have a talented prospect in Rasmus Kristensen, but the real star of the show is on the left — Joakim Mæhle. The Atalanta wing-back has plenty of licence to push forward regardless of his role as a full-back or wing-back, and he certainly has the ability to make good use of it.

The Danes have a great balance in midfield too, where more combative players like Thomas Delaney and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg serve as good counterbalances to allow the creative juices of Christian Eriksen to flow.

The ex-Ajax man’s versatility could prove key in the switches between a back-three and back-four, as he is adept at pulling the strings from a deeper role but can also cause damage further up the pitch.

The forward positions are perhaps the only ones where Denmark lack real star power, which makes their attacking numbers even more impressive. Nonetheless, Hjulmand is able to assemble a fairly impressive front line.

On the right, Club Brugge wing-back is usually repurposed as a winger in a 4-3-3. He is able to adapt to this change of position very well since he effectively operates as an attacker in Belgium anyway, as is proven by his nine goals and eight assists in the Jupiler Pro League in 2022.

Mikkel Damsgaard is usually found on the left, where his technical ability shines in the half-space, allowing Mæhle to patrol the flank.

The striker position is the one where Denmark are arguably the weakest. Kasper Dolberg, Martin Braithwaite and Andreas Cornelius are all good options, but none really stand out as game-changing goal-scorers.

Highly-rated teenage talent Rasmus Højlund might be the answer to that problem in the future, but he will still be far from the finished product during the 2022 World Cup.

The other major concern for Denmark is that they cannot claim to possess great squad depth, so all the replacements for their star players are not quite at the same level.

This is hardly a surprise given the smaller pool of players they have to work with, though, so they can only hope that the main men stay injury-free until the end of the year.

Should that happen, Denmark could be dark horses at the World Cup. They should be expected to reach the Round of 16 from their group with Australia, France and Tunisia, but repeating their Nations League exploits and getting the better of Deschamps’ men could be crucial to the longevity of their run in the knockouts.

The runners-up of their group are set to face the winners of Group C, likely to be Argentina. They will naturally want to avoid that, as the winners of Group D will probably face Mexico or Poland, both of whom are not as formidable as the Copa América holders.

Their quarter-final opponents could well be England in that case, although any slip-ups from Southgate’s misfiring side would alter their path.

That is something that Denmark do not need to concern themselves with for now, as they should focus on progressing from the group stage. Odds are that they will, and anything is possible in tournament football.

Stats courtesy Stats Perform via The Analyst, Wyscout and StatsBomb via Fbref.

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