England might be just 90 minutes away from their first major final since 1966. They have come this far but fallen short before, most recently in 2018, yet there is real belief that on this occasion the Three Lions can take the next step even against a Danish side that have stunned Europe in recent weeks. Let’s take a look at how it might play out.
1. Saka starts to quell Denmark’s Maehle
Denmark’s tournament didn’t necessarily flip when Kasper Hjullmand switched from a back four to a three. His side had been performing impressively at both ends of the pitch in remarkably trying circumstances but certainly from that third game onwards they became an even more effective attacking force, registering more than two expected goals (xG) in the next two matches as they ran four past both Russia and Wales.
Crucial to that success has been Joakim Maehle, second in nearly every category for Denmark from shot creating actions, touches, successful dribbles, assists and even shots. The only defenders with more shot creating actions at the tournament than his 15 are Jordi Alba and Leonardo Spinazzola. A right back deployed on the opposite flank for the national team, the Atalanta youngster is at the heart of his team’s attack and, with the possible exception of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, is the most irreplaceable component to the Danish attack.
The challenge he has offered down the left has been one that has been beyond most of his opponents so far. It does not help that further forward Hjullmand’s front three tend to have no fixed abodes; in one attack a right back may face the direct running of Mikkel Damsgaard, while the next brings aerial balls up to Yussuf Poulsen. If England are to be successful, they simply must quell Maehle.
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Southgate is not short on options, not least in the system he plays. A return to a 3-4-3 should not be discounted considering the success it brought against Germany, though the temptation will surely be strong to stick with the system that rifled through Ukraine.
How to deal with Maehle though? In simple terms Southgate has two options. First he cab look to pin him back, ideally with a player who can attack outside him into the wide channels with Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden two of the more natural options. Alternatively, England might look for a right winger who is capable of tracking those runs from deep, in which case Bukayo Saka would be the most tempting option. Naturally there is more to the decision that simply attack or defense, any one of the wide forwards in the squad can test their full backs and many of them have proven to be diligent in their off ball duties.
Still, if the evidence of this tournament is anything to go on, expect Southgate to stabilize his foundations before going on the attack. With three center backs behind him, there is only so much inhibition that Maehle will feel over attacking. Even if England park someone like Sancho in behind him, he can simply trust Jannik Vestergaard to deal with any fast attacks in behind. Meanwhile, Saka can be trusted to do to Maehle what he did to Robin Gosens of Germany in the round of 16: limiting his touches, clogging space and winning the odd tackle when required.
A veteran head on young shoulders, it was just 18 months ago that Saka was talking about taking what he learned when pushed into a left back role into his future career higher up the pitch. “In the future if I do get to go back onto the wing I feel like I know how fullbacks play and playing as a fullback I know what wingers do, what I like them to do and what I don’t like them to do,” he said after a Premier League victory over Newcastle. Already you can see those signs for Arsenal and England. If Southgate sees them too then he may just trust his youngest player with such a significant task.
2. Kane gets back to volume shooting
This has been a curious tournament for Harry Kane. Until the closing minutes of the round of 16 win over Germany it felt reasonable to question whether the captain even merited a place in Southgate’s side. He looked to be off the pace and out of sync with his teammates. They were a blur of pace leaving streaks on the Wembley turf, sprinting away from defenders while their captain covered his yards with all the haste of an oil tanker.
Three goals does not change those simple facts, but equally there were signs of a player moving back towards his best form, and you at least did not sense that he looked exhausted by all that had come before him in that 4-0 win over Ukraine. In that context it is worth remembering that Kane has spoken about judging his tournament better than he did in 2018, when he raced into an unassailable lead for the World Cup’s Golden Boot but struggled to make a real impact at the business end of the tournament.
“Maybe in Russia there were times, towards the quarter- and semi-final, when I wasn’t as sharp as I wanted to be. In the end we didn’t get to where we wanted to go, maybe partly for that reason,” Kane said after playing Scotland in the group stages of this run. Since then he has been like himself more often than not, registering 25 touches in the attacking third, including seven in the box, against the Czech Republic in the very next match, a welcome step forward from earlier games. He picked up that trend against Ukraine too, with five touches in the penalty area. In such a context perhaps his display against Germany ought to be judged by the state of the game, one where England were looking to retain parity until late on, rather than his own levels even if he might have done better with a fine chance just before the interval.
It is notable as well that the England captain has begun receiving passes rather more infrequently as the tournament has warn on, something which is perhaps better news for Kane than it might be for others. His problem early in the tournament seemed to be that he wanted to be more involved in build up but was unable to do the creative work he does for Tottenham because he does not have Heung-min Son alongside him. The matches against the Czech Republic and Ukraine seemed to be the first where you truly believed he had grasped his best role in this team, stationed near the 18 yard box and taking lots of shots. In the quarterfinal he took four and hit the target on three occasions, more than he had managed in the whole tournament beforehand.
3. England narrow Denmark’s attacking options
While it is important not to get carried away with England’s prospects just because they aren’t facing a big name on home turf, it is equally fair to note that they are well set to quell many of the strengths in chance creation that Denmark have shown throughout the tournament. Maehle may be a challenge but there are other aspects to the build up play that Southgate can be more confident of negating.
Among those will be Andreas Christensen, who in a three man defense has been given license to step forward into midfield and push his side into the final third. Only Maehle and Hojbjerg have more progressive carries and only the former sits above him for number of passes made into the final third with the Chelsea center back having played Denmark into the most dangerous area of the pitch on 24 occasions, more than the likes of more established defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Toby Alderweireld did for Italy and Belgium in this tournament.
It is easy to see why such an approach would be effective against international sides who often lack the time on the training pitch for organized presses and are more likely to simply collapse back into a low block. In such circumstances Christensen can move forward and Denmark with him. Yet if, as expected, Mason Mount retains his place in the starting XI his Chelsea teammate may find it altogether more challenging to advance forward unobstructed. Not for nothing has Mount’s former manager Frank Lampard described the England international as the best pressing midfielder he has ever worked with.
Per fbref at this tournament Mount averages over six successful pressures per 90 minutes and applies pressure impressively frequently in the final third. He is not alone in that; England apply the sixth most pressures near their opponents’ goal per 90 minutes of teams at the tournament and have done so with increased frequency throughout this tournament. Christensen will know only too well how difficult it is to push forward with Mount in close proximity. England may look at stopping Christensen as stopping Denmark at the source, such has been his combination play with Hojbjerg, the Tottenham midfielder who has shown a vastly expanded creative repertoire on the international stage.
Aside from these individuals, one of Denmark’s great strengths this tournament is how they have exploited crosses and set pieces for their goals. No great surprise there, Hjullmand’s side is one of giants such that a player like the six foot Thomas Delaney can find himself left unmarked at corners, as he was to head in the opener against the Czech Republic. Indeed five of their six goals at the knockout stages have come from crosses into the box and they are one of just five nations to have created more than one goal from dead balls this competition.
That they managed to do so against the Czech Republic augurs well for a meeting against England, another side who have had success attacking and defending set pieces this tournament. They have two goals from dead balls to their name — both scored in the 4-0 win over Ukraine — and have allowed just one set piece to transform into a shot creating action in each of their games so far. If anyone can match the heights of the Danes it might just be Harry Maguire and company.
It rather seems then that for most of the punches Denmark have England have a counter to soften the blow. Add a huge crowd roaring them on and you can perhaps see why Southgate’s side are such favorites for Wednesday’s game.