G areth the Great. Not since the reign of the legendary King Alfred has England witnessed a leader so erudite, virtuous and dedicated to the thankless cause of 'uniting' the English under one common banner. 25 years to the day he infamously missed a penalty which would see England fail to reach the European Championship Final on home soil, Gareth Southgate has the chance to complete the ultimate redemption arc against the invading Danes. A script truly written by the gods.
Where the likes of Boris and the Tories established a political stranglehold on England through their ability to use divide and conquer tactics; championing hateful rhetoric and implementing amoral policies which play to the gallery, Southgate has blocked out the noise and stood firm for values which form the very bedrock of what it means to be 'English'; A strong sense of fairness, progressive within reason and substance over style.
These values have been integral in moulding a diverse squad of players who have now reached back to back semi finals in 2 major international tournaments. With this achievement, Southgate has already confirmed his place in English footballing folklore as the greatest English manager since the revered Sir Alf Ramsey. The humble yet ambitious Southgate will not be stirred by the accolades already coming his way (a knighthood seems inevitable) and will remain focused on the job at hand, that of securing England's first major final in 60 years.
As for the Danes, they too will be referring to history as a source of inspiration for success. 20 years ago, the unfancied Danes conquered Europe without their leading light, Michael Laudrup and with a Schmeichel in goal. This time around, Denmark are once again without their talisman, Christian Eriksen and with another Schmeichel in goal. On that journey they too had to face England, albeit in the group stages, but the parallels are eerily similar.
Without further ado, this preview will serve as a guide to what you can expect each team to do tactically, with an in-depth look at each team’s build up play, strategy in transitions, and final third structures and ideas.
As mentioned in our tactical report on the England team prior to the tournament, the English centre back pairing of Stones and Maguire has to be one of the most enterprising and easiest on the eye in the tournament on paper. Statistically this is backed up the fact that both defenders rank in the top 25 progressive players in the Euros (this usually favours defensive players who are more likely to pass over a longer distance).
When facing Germany, in order to strengthen the defence but also facilitate the build up, Southgate went with 5 at the back. With Walker closer to them, and an addition full back option to spread the play to, England dominated the first half averaging 66% possession from the 15-30th minute period, dropping to 55% from the 30-45th minute.
Against a front foot side like Germany this was seriously impressive but upon closer inspection, Germany's PPDA dropped off from their usual average under 10 to around 60 - a clear sign they now wanted to play on the counter. England forced them into this situation due to the threat posed by Saka and Sterling and it allowed the likes of Rice and Phillips to have the breathing space to recycle the play.
This also occurred in the thumping of Ukraine, where the opposition sat off the midfield - with a PPDA of 41 in the opening 15 minutes, allowing the English midfield to imprint their identity with no threat of ever losing the ball. If Denmark are to make this a game, it is imperative they take the game to England and enforce the high press throughout the game.
The Danish Press
With a PPDA of 10.85, Denmark are one of the best pressing sides of the Euros. Earlier into the competition, they hounded the likes of Belgium and Denayer in particular into making a catastrophic error in possession which allowed them to take the lead. However in their most recent game against the Czech Republic, Denmark's pressing fell off a cliff, suggesting that the lack of depth in their squad is coming back to haunt them as they go deep into the competition.
In terms of structure, Denmark press in a 3-4-2-1 with Dolberg or Poulsen spearheading the press in central areas focusing on the centre backs, with the inside forwards either targeting the side centre backs or full backs and Hojberg being released from the centre circle to pin down any ball-playing midfielder in the deeper areas. Denmark's wing backs will then also go in aggressively in the wide areas. It is a very effective and well-drilled press.
Does Gareth go with a 5 or a 4? Previously when he has faced Denmark, he went with a 3-4-3 but this is a different Denmark side. The loss of Eriksen and the rise of Maehle has necessitated a shift to 3-4-2-1. Belgium despite their 5 at the back struggled to beat the press but it must be noted they were without Witsel and De Bruyne in the first half.
Playing 5 will mean a man to man battle, but 4 may mean being pushed back and forced to hit more direct passes in the opening exchanges. On the flip side an extra man in midfield, may mean that if the press is bypassed - England have more men to attack with and control the final third with. Personally I think England are always better in transition, rather than with too many men camped in opposition area.
Kane scoring goals, Sterling the anointed one and in Luke Shaw, one of the most productive full backs of the tournament - England's goal drought seems to be well behind them with 6 goals so far in the knockout stages. Upon closer inspection however, England still only managed 1.95XG against the Ukraine and 0.95XG against the Germans (Germany had 1.15) which suggests chance creation may still not be firing on all cylinders.
Nevertheless, there is a sense that momentum is building with some key protagonists now having played themselves into some sort of form and against a side which has conceded almost a goal a game, it is hard to envisage England failing to register on the scoresheet.
Saka could be Key
England are a slightly different side to the one that faced the Danes in the Nations League. In those selections there was many square pegs in round holes, Trippier at left back in a 3-4-2-1 killed the width on the left flank and the back three of Dier, Coady and Gomes did not inspire confidence in possession. The front three of Kane, Sterling and Sancho failed to click and neither did Kane, Rashford and Mount.
It is unlikely we will see these combinations used. Expect to see Saka restored to the lineup and perhaps Foden if Saka is still carrying an injury. Saka would be integral in exposing the space in behind of Maehle, who like Spinazzola for the Italians is a vital attacking weapon for the Danes. He can track back and make it a 5-2-1-2 but there is an element of delay and Saka can take advantage.
St George's Cross
It is probably worth noting that 2 of Kane's goals have come from crosses. He is a man who thrives on aerial service especially in the tighter games but England have only put in 44 crosses all tournament, despite being pretty damn effective with them. With a back 4, it is difficult to imagine the likes of Shaw and Walker being unleashed enough to stretch the pitch, penetrate the final third and get crosses in. In truth it is hard to imagine it happen even in a back 5.
It is very important that if Shaw and Trippier are deployed as wing-backs, they are given licence to get forward because against the Germans it was only when Shaw threw the shackles off that England were able to produce quality chances. Now of course defensive balance is key, so we do not expect them to bomb on all game but there must be that freedom to choose the right moment and sense when to get forward.
On the transition, Denmark have three men back. Christensen is difficult to expose. His recovery pace, strength and solid positioning means that he is the cornerstone of the Danish backline on the counter. England's biggest strength on the counter is down the left side, so this is an intriguing match up... for me Shaw has to bomb on to get Sterling away from the talented Dane.
Kjaer is someone who struggles against pacey and powerful centre forwards on the transition but against Harry Kane, he will be more in his element. In the 2 times he has faced Kane, he has kept a clean sheet. Lukaku in truth was a more difficult opponent for him on paper. This is why if England are to stand a chance of keeping Kane's run going, having runners around him and crosses put in will give him the best shot of grabbing another goal.
With the Danes deploying a pretty aggressive press throughout the tournament, it is absolutely essential England have a penetrative and pacey threat down the wings. We alluded to Saka earlier on and he could be the joker in the pack in this game. He has the guile and the intelligence to unlock this Danish defence on the transition and as legs tire, England's substitutes could be pivotal.
In the absence of Eriksen, the Danes have picked up the tempo in possession, averaging 18 passes per minute of pure ball possession (compared to around 16 for England). Kasper Schmeichel is very underrated with the ball at his feet and in many ways he dictates the pace at which Denmark will proceed to progress the ball from the final third.
It may seem strange to say that, seeing as he is a goalkeeper but due to his experience and status within the side - he has an authority in distribution that is unmatched. He will roll his foot over the ball to slow down the game or more commonly play it short, or ignore the available short options for a lofted pass to the wing backs if he decides the Danes need to get on with it and move the ball out of the defensive third as soon as possible.
If it does go through the centre backs or the wing backs, the end result is the same... a sharp pass into the midfield who will then with maximum efficiency distribute it into the forward players if possible. There is very little holding on to the ball by the midfield players because rather like the English side, there is a lack of a regista in there and the thought is that these players are mere defensive shields who operate as backboards/conduits rather than as playmakers.
Despite this, the Danish midfielders and especially Hojberg has been much more progressive and forward thinking with the ball than his English counterparts. It should not be a surprise to Premier League fans as he was one of the standout CDM's of the season and someone I would recommend to Manchester United. England must ensure that he has pressure exerted on him and that passes into the centre are then forced backwards as that is what the Czechs did really well.
It is no surprise to see the fluid Danes have taken twice as many shots as England (79 v 36), twice as many crosses (95 v 44) and establish themselves as one of the top 5 dribbling sides in the competition (148 dribbles (63.5% success rate) v 114 (43.9% - England are in the bottom 5). This has all translated into more penalty area entries and more goals.
How have they achieved this? Well the Danes play in a very front foot style and attack in a 3-1-1-5 structure with their forwards given complete freedom to roam and create numerical superiority on the flanks, linking with the respective wing backs. Despite playing with 2 CDM's. both of their midfielders are given the licence to get into enemy territory even if it is as a decoy and occupy the 10 position.
Supplementing this tactical anarchy is a flair which we do not associate with Scandinavian outfits. The Danes have previous for creating mavericks, see the Laudrups and Elkjaer. This time they seem to have a team full of inventive characters who can link up with silky one-touch passes and are not afraid to delve into unorthodox means of keeping or creating with the ball.
On paper they have a far inferior side to the English in attack but mentally and technically these players feel 'looser' and are more uninhibited. But there are some matters of concern for the Danes. Firstly they are playing the best defensive side in the competition, with no goals conceded. Secondly, they looked tired against the Czechs and the synergy in attack did not look the same.
For the Danish attack to play above and beyond its level of ability, they need to bombard the English defence with a high energy style and cannot afford to attack in a piecemeal manner with limited numbers. That is what will cause gaps in the English backline and there are errors in this defence, for example Kyle Walker is always susceptible to having a shit performance in games of great magnitude.
One feels that the English defence especially in a back 5 and with Rice and Phillips protecting it should have too much for this Dane attack. Braithwaite's pace and power, not to mention his 1 v 1 ability should be counteracted by the likes of Shaw and Maguire down the left. Trippier should have the experience to see off Maehle, but there was some scary moments from Gosens in the Germany game. That flank remains Danes best but rather limited chance in open play.
England tend to defend transitions relatively well. They are not a team which wholeheartedly commits to attack and their full backs are defensive in nature and positionally sound. Whilst Maguire lacks pace, he is surrounded by enough dynamism for it not to really be an issue. In a Southgate back 5, it is even more difficult to envisage England being done on the counter attack. Furthermore England's midfielders are defensively disciplined and will always seek to get back to defend.
This nevertheless did lead to opportunities for Muller to run in on goal and last ditch fouls on the likes of Goretzka - neither of whom possesses express pace. With the fluidity of the Danes attack and the difficulty with anticipating their movement off the ball, it is likely the Danes will have some good opportunities on the counter. Luck will play some role in defending these undoubtedly but England must ensure the right side of their defence is switched on against Maehle's lung busting runs.
A playboy warrior who plays by his own rules, wins the hearts and minds of its common folk by saving the nation time and time again only for the King who reluctantly resorts to him in times of need, to shun him when the going is good. Sound familiar?
For those who have never seen 'The Last Kingdom', King Alfred in his desire to build and maintain an England rooted in Christian values, has to resort to using the assistance of a 'Heathen', a non-conformist who sings off a different hymn sheet in order to outsmart and successfully fight off the invading Danes. One senses that Jack Grealish is Southgate's Uthred of Bebbanburg.
Southgate was reluctant to call Grealish up to the squad as fundamentally he was a very different character to the type of players Southgate wants in his England squad i.e. professional choir boys who follow the game plan to a tee and contribute in defence and attack in equal measure. As the side began to stagnate post 2018, and with the noise surrounding Grealish's performances this season, Southgate began to waver in his defiance.
In the game against the Czechs, after a dismal performance against Scotland - Southgate turned to his joker in the pack, fully aware that if England put in another 'boring' performance, they may lose the hearts and minds of the nation. It was a selection as always rooted with pragmatism in mind but credit to Gareth for not being stubborn and going against his natural instinct for the good of the nation. He would rather be 'wrong' in order to do 'right'.
Grealish once again was the 'gamebreaker', Southgate chose to bring off the bench against Germany - ahead of players like Foden... a sign that he had earnt some begrudging respect and trust from the King. He was then rested for Ukraine, a sign that Southgate is still uneasy with building up Jack as a 'starter' but there can be no doubt that if England are in trouble on Wednesday night... he will not hesitate to unleash the calves of Grealish.
England: Pickford, Trippier (or Mount), Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw, Rice, Phillips, Saka, Sterling, Kane
Denmark: Schmeichel, Christensen, Kjaer, Vestegaard, Wass, Maehle, Hojbjerg, Delaney, Braithwaite, Damsgaard, Dolberg
A huge huge night for English football. The opportunity here is incredible. Home advantage, massive momentum and against a side which is admirable, plucky but not a side you would classify as a heavy hitter in the world game. It is a weaker side than the Croatian outfit of 2018 and England are a stronger squad than in 2018. Even if Gareth selects a less than optimal lineup, there will be time to correct things after the break.
If the Danes are to win this, they need to summon up the energy for one final push. They will hope the Czech performance was a mere blip and look to discover a second wind. If they can do that, they have the tools to hurt England because they're a side with a half decent defence with excellent protection in front of it, not to mention an aggressive pressing structure that the English detest. If they go all out attack, they can win this game.
Prediction - I never thought I would see a Brit win Wimbledon. I never thought I would see England win a Cricket World Cup. Growing up in a nation where failure seemed second nature, there does seem to be something different in this new generation of Englishman. They are diverse and united, with a burning desire to re-write the script. Bring it home Gareth... an England win but it might be a butt-clenching one.