Eyebrows were raised when Gareth Southgate’s England XI for the make-or-break Euro 2020 last 16 clash with Germany was released. Amid accusations of excessive conservatism, the 50-year-old doubled down on his approach, opting to shore up the defence and midfield over introducing some creativity. Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Mason Mount all started on the bench.
Southgate admitted his own apprehension afterwards by stating he feared he’d “be dead” had the ploy backfired. It didn’t, though. Instead, England produced a measured performance that vindicated the bold choices of their manager as they marched deeper into the tournament.
Now, England face Denmark in the semi-finals and Southgate might be wise to recycle the plan he devised to take on Germany. Tactically speaking, there are similarities between the 2014 World Cup winners and Kasper Hjulmand’s side. England will have to combat many of the same things they faced in the round of 16.
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The most notable similarity is that Denmark, just like Germany, use wing backs to create overloads in the attacking areas. England kept Robin Gosens quiet in the round of 16 and they will have to do the same with Joakim Maelhe on Wednesday night, with the Atlanta wide man one of the players of the tournament so far.
In an orthodox back four, England could find themselves outnumbered by a Danish attack that quite often sees Maelhe push forward down the left and Mikkel Damsgaard drive into the final third from midfield to create an attacking unit of five. Add in Jens Stryger Larsen down the right side and the threat is obvious for Southgate and his players.
A switch to a back three would come with sacrifices, most notably in the centre of the pitch. As was the case against Germany, the midfield contest would come down to who wins their individual battles. In Thomas Delaney and Pierre-Emile Hjobjerg, Denmark boast two top level central operators.
Denmark's Pierre Emile Hojbjerg in action
Image credit: Getty Images
However, England’s midfield partnership of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice handled Toni Kroos and Leon Goretzka and they would most likely handle Delaney and Hjobjerg. Southgate has shown great trust in the pair and is unlikely to disrupt the structure of his team in the centre of the pitch.
One area of concern for England could be in the space between John Stones as the central centre back and whoever (probably Kyle Walker) would play on the right side of a back three. Germany didn’t exploit this as much as they could have, but Martin Braithwaite is an attacker who likes to run the channels. He will test England’s defensive line with his movement.
Success against Germany and Ukraine has emboldened Southgate to the point where there is now widespread trust in the 50-year-old’s ability as a tactician. Southgate has a firm grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of each player in his 26-man squad and has made good use of this knowledge throughout the tournament.
He must, however, continue to combat the threats posed by opponents. Denmark might not have the individual quality of England, but Hjulmand has forged a team that is more than the sum of its parts. Their resurgence after the awful events of their opening group game, when Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest, has been remarkable.
Denmark have momentum behind them and are the neutral’s favourites, but they have made it this far by Euro 2020 by simply being a very good football team. Hjulmand changed the approach of his side after Eriksen was ruled out of the tournament, with the shift to a back three a good fit for his squad. England might have to respond with a shift of their own.
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