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Denmark’s calculated tactical shift unpicks Wales to sustain emotional Euro 2020 journey

Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand moved to counter space by moving Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen into midfield and Wales never recovered

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Sports Feature Writer
Saturday 26 June 2021 19:58 BST
Euro 2020: Daily briefing

At the time, it felt like nothing at all. A bobbling ball in the Danish box fell momentarily to Aaron Ramsey. Instinctively, the midfielder got a right-footed shot away. It beat the nearest Denmark defender but did not travel much further as it clattered into Gareth Bale.

For the previous 20 minutes, Amsterdam’s Johan Cruyff Arena had murmured with Welsh domination. Bale already had a sighter, darting in from the left and shooting beyond the far post from outside the box. The Danes were tetchy, Wales brimming with confidence.

As with all “sliding doors” moments, only hindsight offers the clarity to label it such. But by half-time, after Kasper Dolberg had notched the first and more impressive of his two strikes, we could denote this as the literal and figurative point when things turned. When two Welsh stars got in each other’s way as the marker for Denmark to grow into, and eventually take, this round of 16 tie.

Wales had bossed the first half of the first instalment of these Euro2020 knockout stages. The occasion no blight on their endeavour, perhaps because of the broader picture at play.

The meeting of these two teams brought with it recalibration of what we “know” of football’s rhythms, and a reminder of how real-world occurrences within the confines of sport can contort its assumptions. Assumptions ultimately cemented in orchestrated yet equally raw emotion.

For this was always set to be the most emotional of fixtures, driven by those who could not be there: those Welsh fans and Christian Eriksen, who spent six years at Ajax, joining aged 16 to grace this stadium and become one of this city’s many beloved adopted Danish sons.

Head coach Rob Page, in calling for Wales to not hold back, reminded us all that Eriksen’s return to health was “all that matters in life”. In the context of the midfielder’s collapse in the opening match against Finland, football in the grand setting of an international tournament felt inconsequential. And yet it also was the foundation of the bond for not just Eriksen and his teammates but those in the opposition. All who enter the field do so with the assumption that, no matter how those 90 minutes play out, they will walk off.

In turn, Wales’ status as underdogs was carried solely in the betting exchanges rather than neutral hearts. The location, too, skewed against them: the least neutral a venue could be.

The Johan Cruyff Arena and the city as a whole packed with Danish fans, if only for 90 minutes and 12 hours respectively. The Welsh support came from the bench or the few who managed to get a ticket, though the camaraderie within the squad multiplied by the occasion has been its own unique brand of rocket fuel.

Their spirit of lifting themselves above their means was countered by a deeper narrative sentiment around Denmark’s rise from almost losing a brother, losing to Finland then Belgium, but still finding a way to triumph. The second goal came with a sprinkle of both: young Neco Williams busting a gut to clear a cross valiantly yet loosely into the path of Dolberg, who needed a second touch but not a second invitation to slam home the deflating strike just three minutes after the break.

Yet for all the onus on poignancy, the about-turn was down to cold, hard tactical shifts. Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand countered space by moving Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen in front of what was now a back four. In turn, Christensen hampered Ramsey’s movement. Bale had less room to roam. The pair were rarely in the box together from that point on.

In turn, Thomas Delaney and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg spent less time chasing back and more time thinking forward. Retaining possession, shiny new thing Mikkel Damsgaard drifted that little bit more, dropping into the half-space out left to play his part in the one-two that allowed Dolberg to charge from unusually deep for his second.

That greater control was converted to outright dominance. And as Denmark thrived, Wales were picked off before they collapsed in on themselves. Page’s alterations were in vain, unable to stem the wave of attacks from white shirts.

Worst of all was the agonising wait to confirm Denmark’s fourth. By then, Wales were already on the end of their heaviest defeat in the European Championship. Bale and Ramsey, the most creative pair over the last two Euros coming into this match, were left to niggle. Bale, in what is framed as possible his last tournament appearance for his country (he is only 31), took a tame yellow for sarcastically applauding referee Daniel Sierbert, who had earlier given Harry Wilson a straight red card for a cynical challenge on Joakim Mæhle, scorer of the third.

As confirmation came through of Martin Brathwaite’s added-time strike, closely followed by the full-time whistle, Danes embraced while Welsh hearts sunk deep at the desolate surrender of a campaign at odds with the splendour of 2016.

Denmark’s story goes on, even if it remains a sideshow to Eriksen’s ongoing situation. It would not have been any less had it ended here. But it means that little bit more that it didn’t.

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