Denmark’s national soccer team accomplished little of note until the early 1980s. In 1983, a strong Danish team had a great campaign attempting to qualify for Euro 1984. Qualification turned on a match against England at Wembley Stadium.
In the build-up to the match, one English soccer pundit commended Denmark for its qualification efforts but predicted that, after England thrashed them, the Danes would return to doing what they do best, “drinking lager, making sandwiches, and watching English football on the telly.”
But it was Denmark that qualified for the tournament and England that watched on the telly, as the Danes made it to the semifinals where they lost a thrilling match to Spain on penalty kicks.
England finally avenged that 1983 defeat yesterday. It squeezed past Denmark, 2-1 after extra time.
As he has all tournament, England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, got his tactics right. He played his usual 4-3-3 formation with the ten players that have populated it throughout the tournament (availability permitting), plus Bukayo Sako in the rotating right-wing position.
This was the set-up I thought Southgate should use against Germany to counter Robin Gosens, the dangerous German left wing-back. But Germany posed a threat down both wings, so Southgate wisely matched up in that game, abandoning the 4-3-3 and using two wing-backs.
The Danes, by contrast, only posed a serious problem down the left wing, through Joakim Maehle. So Southgate, taking advantage of Sako’s wing-back traits, deployed him on Maehle’s side, but as a forward in the 4-3-3.
It worked. Maehle was basically a non-factor in attack. And Sako assisted on England’s first goal.
Southgate also got his substitutions right, mainly by not making many of them.
Throughout this tournament, I’ve been puzzled by decisions of other managers to pull off high-quality forwards. In the Italy-Spain semi-final, the Italians replaced all three forwards, two of them before the overtime period. Spain replaced two of its three forwards (though in Spain’s case, the replacements had both been starters during much of the tourney). Switzerland also replaced all three of its forwards in regulation time of its quarterfinal match with Spain (decided on penalty kicks), as did Spain in that match.
Denmark had pulled its two most lethal attackers, Kasper Dolberg and Mikkel Damsgaard, at around the hour mark in both of the team’s previous knockout stage matches. Yesterday, its manager pulled the two after 63 minutes.
Denmark never looked like scoring after that.
Southgate, by contrast, stuck with his two best attackers, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane, for the full 120 minutes. Sterling, who never seemed to tire, rewarded him by drawing a (borderline) penalty with another great run into the box in extra time. Kane converted, albeit only after Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel saved the spot kick.
And even though Denmark used all six of its substitutes, compared to four by England (and only one in the first 90 minutes), the English were the fresher side from about the 70 minute mark on.
Every manager at the Euros knows his team far better than any outsider can. There may be good reasons for substituting one’s best strikers.
However, managers rarely do this during the regular league seasons unless there is an injury or the outcome of the match has been determined. Strikers are expected to go 90 minutes. And when one goal is likely to decide the match, as was the case after the first hour of both semifinals, common sense militates strongly in favor of allowing them to do so, even if they might be a bit tired.
That’s what Southgate did and what the managers of the other semifinalist did not. Once again, Gareth got it right.