Kasper Hjulmand the Maestro
I watched Denmark vs Wales for my affinity for Danish football and my interest in Kasper Hjulmand’s preferred tactical approach. I enjoyed watching him orchestrate his team’s magnificent performance. In my analysis, I elaborate on the Danish players’ roles and present an easy-to-understand tactical breakdown.
A huge shout out to totalfootballanalysis.com for their great EURO 2020 reports. I relied on their visual representation of this match for a good part of this analysis.
Denmark’s starting formation and the importance of the complete wing-backs
Kasper Hjulmand started the game with three central defenders in what would have been a 3-2-2-2-1, meaning a 3-4-3 (or 5-2-3, if you wish) inspired by the Chilean mastermind Marcelo Bielsa‘s textbook. Similar formations are widely used by South American football ”schools”, such as Chile’s. South American football optimizes formations that give the lines to 1 player and overcrowd the midfield and central areas of the pitch either with attacking midfielders or defensive ones. To make this work, players in central positions should operate in more than one area of the field, providing the fluidity that is key to make these formations lethal.
In formations like these, the complete wing-backs are pivotal to providing width to the attacks and for the transitional plays. They must have excellent stamina and speed to make constant advances forward while keeping in check the opponent wingers when the team loses possession of the ball. Attacking midfielders (or forwards) and central midfielders are called to make diagonal runs to play the overlap in the wing or to play the one-two with the marauding wing when they are cutting inside. If we take a look at the way the wings played, we will find that they were primarily focused on combining with players in central positions. Denmark’s pass flow map shows that the complete wing-backs passed primarily to the inside and significantly less to forwards that had moved to the wing. The wing-backs turned inside instead of passing ahead like we would have seen in a tactic that promotes wing play. Joakim Maehle passed inside mostly when he was around the middle line although he was constantly moving forward. Jens Stryger Larsen did exactly the same, but the majority of his passes came from a slightly more advanced position. The difference we see in their pass flow maps is attributed to Stryger Larsen’s smaller participation in the possession build-up compared to Maehle’s.
At this point, we have to analyze this formation in more depth. In particular, how are the central midfielders operating in conjunction with the three players in forward positions? Let’s take it one step at a time. I have explained above how the wing-backs influenced the game and I will continue by analyzing how the forwards operated tactically, finishing with the midfielders’ roles and positioning in the formation.
Kasper Hjulmand positioned Martin Braithwaite and Mikkel Damsgaard in central positions around Kasper Dolberg primarily to support and combine with him, secondarily to attract the interest of the opponents’ full-backs leaving open space in the wing for wing-backs to exploit. For that reason, they played close to each other in big parts of the game while also making runs to the open channels in between the full-back and central defender. Denmark’s first goal is a good example of how the forwards operated. Damsgaard made the run to receive Maehle’s exceptional pass in the open space at the left-wing and then quickly gave the assist to Dolberg who was moving around and very close to him.
The compactness in the middle and last third of the pitch also helped defensively. The trio put pressure on the Welsh players’ first pass, forcing them to make mistakes or to look for long balls. In general, this trick is part of the reason Wales looked disjointed when in possession. A look at Wales’ lost ball zones and the areas they made the most mistakes would convince you of the positive impact that the Danish trio’s pressure had on the defensive side of their game.
Their average positions in the field would shock many, but not someone used to these South American styles of football. Dolberg was the spearhead of the attacks moving slightly more to the right but primarily moving centrally. Damsgaard moved between the left-wing and Kasper Dolberg, very close to Delaney as we will analyze later. However, he had the freedom to move at will, supporting attacks even on the right side and dropping deeper when he needed to find space or to receive the ball from Andreas Christensen and Pierre Hojbjerg. Braithwaite on the other hand made so many of his runs on the right side while also defending against Ben Davies, that his heatmap looks like one of a traditional right-winger positioned in a central area to move consistently to the flanks. Like we saw him do in Denmark’s second goal of the game when he moved behind Ben Davies to receive the ball unchallenged, cut inside, and took Joe Rodon on a 1-on-1 to cross the ball in the area.
If we compare Wales’ players’ heat maps and average positions to the Danish ones, we quickly realize that they were positioned and had instructions to eliminate the threats from Denmark’s left side since they were afraid – and rightly so – of Maehle’s impact on the game. However, in doing so they left Ben Davies alone to defend not only against Stryger Larsen but Braithwaite as well who, as a smart player, exploited the numerical advantage that was created on the right side of the pitch, capitalizing a gap in Wales’ defensive tactics.
What about the central midfielders in Denmark’s formation? How did Christensen’s change of position make a difference?
Their job in this system is to move around their area of control where instead of acting as traditional box-to-box midfielders, they opt to move more to the sides to support the wing-backs. Although well planned, the formation wasn’t well executed during the first 20 minutes of the game. It appeared as though Denmark’s manager was well prepared for the possibility that the two central midfielders would have been overrun by Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale in advanced central positions, and quickly adapted his formation. There was no need for three central defenders, therefore Christensen moved in front of the CB as a defensive midfielder. The formation did not change anywhere else, the focus was still in the central positions of the field and the complete wing-backs continued to have their manager’s faith that they could dominate the wings along with some help from all the players ahead of Christensen.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Denmark finished the game with Brentford’s two central midfielders Mathias Jensen and Christian Norgaard; another smart move by their coach who utilizes two of the most important pieces of their successful campaign, and promotion to Premier League. Well done once again!
Andreas Christensen‘s change of position made a huge impact on his sides’ performance right away. Not only did it mitigate threats from the get-go, but it also supported Hojbjerg and Delaney to have the excellent match they did. Thomas Delaney played like a mezzala, moving constantly to the left close to Maehle and sometimes even more forward than Damsgaard, starting his moves from a more central start. Hojbjerg had the opportunity to do the same on the right side although in arguably less advanced positions than Delaney’s. The creative freedom given to the central midfielders freed Damsgaard and Braithwaite up as well- feeling supported and having more players around them to combine, they could focus on taking their opponents on to try to dribble past them. As a result, they were needed less on helping the team build its possession from the back and more on supporting Dolberg, playing one-twos, playing the overlap, and making runs to exploit open channels and vacant spaces.
Wales’ had no answer as they seemed clearly unprepared to counter their opponent’s tactics. They were outnumbered in the central positions and were also barely able to defend in wide positions. Denmark utilized this awesome 4-1-2-2-1 in a way that left you to wonder if they had more than 11 players or if Wales had fewer.
Christensen in particular, helped his team control the middle of the pitch, being important in building possession. He received the central defenders’ first pass acting as an outlet to connect the defenders with the midfielders, and recycling possession when needed. He made an even bigger difference defending against Aaron Ramsey, who moved as an attacking midfielder. His positioning did not allow Ramsey, Bale, and Moore to combine, halting their threats since he moved to the defensive midfielder role.
Instead of summarising the above, I would like to write a few words about a player whose performance I have already highlighted in a previous analysis.
Joakim Maehle continues to impress and his form could easily place him as one of the best wing-backs currently in the game. He marked his excellent performance with a beautiful goal. Once again, he found the open space, this time from the right side, having changed sides, and made an unchallenged run inside the opponent’s area. He then forced the defender, Ben Davies, to lose his footing when he faked a shot and sent the ball to the net with his left foot in a well-placed finish that Danny Ward was unable to save. Maehle was constantly challenging Wales’ full-backs taking them on 1-to-1, making runs down the line, and cutting inside to cross, pass or finish from inside the area. He had 7 progressive passes, 1 completed cross, carried the ball 3 times to the final third, had two shot-creating actions and one goal-creating action, shot the ball twice on target with a 0.3 xG, and made two tackles. The aforementioned stats are excellent and showcase his importance to Denmark’s game offensively and defensively. The former-Genk-now-Atalanta player proves that he is in excellent form this year, having played amazing football for three different sides. Atalanta made a steal when they bought him from Genk, and I believe that it won’t be long until he plays for one of the biggest sides of Europe.