Denmark Was Something Rotten

Heading into the World Cup, I was all in on Denmark. I chose them as one of the teams I wanted to preview ahead of the tournament, and all the research I did pointed to a team with one glaring weakness in attack and elite-level cohesion everywhere else. That combination gave me hope, because I felt like Denmark could control games enough that they would be able to back into enough goals to make a run. Could the Danes advance to the knockout round? Hell, could they win the group? I thought they could. But then the games started.

Now that we know that Denmark will go out sad in last place of a hardly terrifying Group D, the 0-0 draw against Tunisia in the opener in retrospect looks like a giant neon-red flag. In that game, Denmark controlled 62 percent of the possession, and the defense plus Kasper Schmeichel held firm against a surprisingly potent Tunisian attack.

Holding a weak team scoreless and having that much of the ball would normally signal a comfortable win, but Denmark’s attack did what I feared it would: It disappeared. Tunisia outshot Denmark 13–11, and a handful of Danish shots came in a flurry right at the end. For the 90 minutes, Tunisia let Denmark have the ball, betting that the Euro semifinalists wouldn’t do much with it. If anything, the Eagles of Carthage will ruefully look back at that game, frustrated not to have finished one of their chances which could’ve seen them advance ahead of Australia.

Denmark then played its best game of the tournament in the second set. Unfortunately, that came against France, who have enough individual talent (read: Kylian Mbappé), and so Denmark’s only goal in the 2022 World Cup—Andreas Christensen’s 68th minute equalizer—was only a consolation in the face of a 2–1 French victory . There were good takeaways from a game that Denmark didn’t really need to win: Once the Danes started actually pushing their foot on the accelerator, they looked as good as advertised, while still keeping control of the game (52 percent possession against France) . All the country needed to do on Wednesday was beat Australia and it would be in the next round, barring some goal shenanigans in the Tunisia-France game.

About that…

Australia basically adopted Tunisia’s playbook from the first game and took it to the logical extreme. Denmark had 69 percent of the possession, but Australia had more shots on target, four to three. The Socceroos started the game playing for a draw, and quite clearly at that, leaving Denmark to bash away at the Aussie goal, but doing so with only a rubber sledgehammer.

The trio of Jesper Lindstrom, Martin Braithwaite, and Andreas Skov Olsen managed nothing but puffs of smoke, and the substitutions of Kasper Dolberg and Mikkel Damsgaard as time was running out did little to change the rhythm of Denmark’s tournament. The midfield players, and particularly Christian Eriksen, were all out of form but still were able to ferry the ball into the attack, but the spaces weren’t there and so Denmark’s attackers repeatedly ran into defenders or bad shots. There was a lack of cohesion, partly because of the dearth of attacking talent and partly because the entire Danish team ahead of the defense seemed to play at about 75 percent for three games, which made Denmark not just ineffective, but horrid to watch.

Australia wasn’t much more fun to keep tabs on, but at least Mathew Leckie was able to finish a counter-attacking move with a couple of nice cutbacks and a slow-rolling shot that was impossibly, perfectly aimed at the bottom corner of Schmeichel’s goals:

That goal canceled out Tunisia’s stunning opener and eventual winner in the other game, and despite Denmark trying to score the two it needed to advance, that’s how this one would end. Australia somehow ended up with six points in this group, winning two games in one World Cup for the first time in its history, while Tunisia will go home in a respectable third with the bitter taste in its mouth that comes from being the only team in the group to drop points to the limp Danish side. As for that Denmark team, the players will regret many things, I’m sure, but it’s hard to pinpoint a particular moment or a player who ruined it for a team with legitimate odds to make a deep run ahead of the tournament.

Denmark took all of its frankly incredible form leading up to the World Cup, including beating France twice in 2022, and threw it away with jarring swiftness. This was a comprehensive collapse from players who had too much talent to return home with just a single point. What started with the semifinal run in the Euros and felt like it could be a golden era of Danish soccer instead ended quickly and ignobly, and now the team is flying home with only memories and disappointment.

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