England – Denmark: Lions or Danes – Who Bites First?

Northern Europe always spoke a similar football language. 4-4-2’s, higher pressing with incredible directness. Come the semi-finals of EURO 2020, the tactical frameworks of England and Denmark are a lot more modern than one would expect.

Match preview by Joel Parker.

The tactical conundrums that had loomed over the England setup before EURO 2020 had lingered throughout the group stage – even if they had won two of the three games in fairly comfortable circumstances.

These issues had less to do with defensive stability and more with open play product, or lack of it, despite having a loaded squad. England’s midfield profiles had hindered the quality of their buildup, as Declan Rice operated more as a center-back in passing sequences, Kalvin Phillips’ bounced between the defensive and forward lines – which killed Croatia but Scotland could handle – whilst Mason Mount was more of a second left winger than a classic ten in the early games. 

As a result, the buildup was heavily U-shaped When a team has possession on the sides of the pitch and with their own central defenders, this is called a ‘U-shape’, because it resembles the letter U. . and Gareth Southgate’s team offered little other than chipped passes into inside runners. Come to the knockout stages and more pragmatic performances have put England in a very good position. The switch to a 3-4-3 shape limited Germany’s fluency in the build, more notably pushing Robin Gosens a lot deeper than usual, but still had to grind out a 2-0 win.

However, the 4-0 drubbing of Ukraine in the quarter-finals is where England’s improvements showed. Although the u-shape continued, the flexibility amongst the forwards was a lot more improved and less clustered. Mount roamed more effectively between channels, whilst the England frontmen provided a lot more passing angles for their deeper players, by continuously dropping onto the shoulders of Ukraine midfielders. The addition of Jadon Sancho had also improved England’s movements between the lines, attracting short one-twos to bypass markers and opening up the pitch vertically.

Perhaps the most encouraging signs came in the form of their pressing. Out of the 4-2-3-1 shape, England moved high up the field and formed pressing traps onto Ukraine’s wing-backs. The pressure was backed up by aggressive fullbacks and a double pivot Two central midfielders next to each other. which was not pulled out of their positions. As a result, England’s defensive shape looked the most compact it had done all tournament.

6th minute: Example of England’s successful 4-2-3-1 pressing traps, against asymmetric 3-5-2 Ukrainian buildup shape. Press is triggered by the pass to wing-back (Grey ball, first pass), Declan Rice moves laterally to cover Luke Shaw and block passing lane back inside to win the ball back (Black ball, second pass.)

This is not a revolutionary tactical approach, but if there is one element that EURO 2020 hasn’t seen it’s a team who presses towards the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. no surprise after a gruelling season, but if anyone can pull it off, it is England. Phil Foden has not featured since the Scotland game, whilst the likes of Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka’s minutes have all been limited in the competition. Southgate won’t change the front line this drastically, but the addition of one or two could see such pressing intensity emulated. 

 Denmark the Dark Horses

Over forty shots taken and seven conceded; fair to say that Denmark were pretty unlucky to lose both of their first two games. They looked even more limited against a passive Russia, until Andreas Christensen was moved further ahead and Denmark moved into a 4-3-3 formation. Russia were overwhelmed and fell apart in the second period, as the Danes only grew stronger in the knockout stages.

The pinnacle of these performances came against Wales, where the switch to a 4-3-3 shape in-game, again nullified a promising opposition attack after twenty minutes. Welsh central pressing triggers A pressing trigger is a specific pass or movement by the opponent that draws out a coordinated team press. failed to close down angles properly and Denmark progressed through the lines with ease. Thomas Delaney and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg were now able to make the third man runs A passing combination between two players, while a third player simultaneously makes a run, usually in behind the opponent’s defensive line. After the initial combination, the ball is quickly played in depth for the third player to run onto. forward, by Christensen’s positioning behind them, whilst the flexibility of Mikkel Damsgaard, Martin Braithwaite and Kasper Dolberg tore through. 

26th minute: Buildup to the first goal versus Wales. Damsgaard dropped into ten space to drag Joe Morell, before Dolberg dropped to the left to move Chris Mepham. This created the space for Damsgaard to drive into and space opened for right-footed Joakim Mæhle to progress infield.

From Amsterdam to Baku, a much different match took place against the Czech Republic. Christensen continued to be the key, this time in the right center-back position in the Danish 3-4-3 shape. When he stepped up with the ball, movements from teammates came with it and combinations were able to be created. 

Two goals were scored before half-time, but Czech changes at the break saw them come out with a brief bang at the start of the second. This saw their passing structure improve, but changes from the bench blew Czech tyres as they started to up the gears. Yussuf Poulsen came on for the transition, Christian Nørgaard on to switch to a 3-5-2 shape and the Danes were able to kill the game’s tempo. 

Kasper Hjulmand’s pragmatism has elevated his status as a top coach. He has always manoeuvred from the bench to take an influence on the field and his changes have improved his team’s performance, each time he has made them. 

Denmark have always possessed a strong tactical blueprint. This most notably comes in the form of their pressing, high up in the 4-4-2 formation, but we haven’t seen this come to the forefront. Only the first half against Belgium saw spells of higher pressure from them, however, this was in the form of a 3-4-3 shape and the Danes haven’t pressed high since. Compared to the other three teams left, Denmark have pressed a lot less and the sacrifice of their one common principle has seen them get to the semi-finals. 

 To three or not to three?

The biggest tactical dilemma for Southgate and Hjulmand is whether to deploy their respective 3-4-3 formations. Unlike most same-formation matchups, two 3-4-3 shapes lock horns because of the man-for-man marking that comes with it. In the number of systems that both teams can deploy, this is probably the most likely scenario.

7th minute: Chance created right through the middle of England. Goretzka made the pass to Müller (Grey ball, first pass), who holds the ball and fed Goretzka’s run (Pink ball, second pass). Lane is open due to the German pinning of England center-backs.

If Southgate opts for this formation switch, then England needs to plug central areas, in the way that they struggled against Germany. Kai Havertz and Thomas Müller were able to drop into space, either side of the England double pivot, supported by either Timo Werner or Leon Goretzka’s third man run. Denmark’s offensive cast may be less stellar than Germany’s, but Hjulmand’s team are more than capable of making similar movements through Delaney or Højbjerg, whilst Damsgaard and Braithwaite have the verticality between the lines.

When out of possession, Denmark would look to set up more in a 5-2-3 / 5-4-1 formation, if they are to play as a back three. This can cause issues down the channels when Braithwaite or Damsgaard transition to defending from the forward to the midfield line. This opened space from the center to in front of the wing-backs, spaces where Gareth Bale caused so much danger in the first quarter of the game versus Wales. 

Although England passing phases can be suboptimal, they have the three elements to make up for this; elite dribblers to get the ball towards the final third, flexible forwards to move markers and the finishers inside the box. England’s ball circulation is limited, but it does not need to be more than that on occasions because of the attacking profiles. 

 War on the wings

Whether either team selects a variation of 3-4-3 / 4-2-3-1 systems, this is a game where superiority down the channels will be the key to unlocking either defense. Denmark has been excellent at keeping the ball from deep and in the channels, before making a vertical pass into the central attacking option, which is always supported. 

Hjulmand’s team can go super direct in these phases. Although the pass is much harder to complete, the trade-off is valuable with their inside forwards in a lot of space. Deeper runs are an effective way of breaking opposition lines and Danish wing-backs will look to do this if granted the possession. Both Joakim Mæhle and Jens Stryger Larsen created chances against the Czechs, thanks to their movements in the blindside to get into good crossing positions. Where chaos reigns an Atalanta player is often nearby, and Mæhle’s outside-of-the-boot assist for their second goal is a great example of these patterns, as play transitioned from right to left.

England’s early problems in the group stage can also be looked into the conservatism of their fullbacks. Kyle Walker has always sat as more of a third center-back in possession, but even when Kieran Trippier, Reece James and Luke Shaw got more game time, the clear instruction was for them to sit in the same line as the double pivot, rather than move ahead. 

Come the Ukraine game, Southgate enabled Luke Shaw to move higher up the field and Sterling benefitted with the rotation that this provided. Shaw could move inside of Sterling or on the overlap to get into good crossing positions, and the Man United left back directly contributed because of this. 

However, against Denmark, it is harder to see England being able to play through this easily. Although space can be conceded in front of the wing-backs, the Danes possess the duel winners and regain compactness in the second phases of these attacks. 

Denmark’s buildup patterns are a lot more attuned than England’s, but it is reliant on drawing out their opponents to the channels, to complete riskier passes towards the frontline. Being drawn out is a situation that England haven’t found themselves in across the whole tournament. Southgate’s team retreat in massive numbers and whether the Danes have the potency in transitional attacks remains to be seen. 


Semi-finals can bring out the dogmatism in coaches. Teams can draw to one element of their principles, even if a better route is available right in front of their eyes. The game has the potential to fall into this bracket, but the attacking play of England and Denmark offers excitement and diversity. 

The Danish blueprint offers more rehearsed and dynamic play through the lines, but the English calvary offers better punching power. Tactics nerds know full well that England’s buildup isn’t good, but as boring as it can be, it is highly effective. Expect a low scoring game, perhaps a low shot count to match, but individual sparks to ignite an entertaining semi-final.

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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