Essentially, France and Denmark had the same idea when they met on Tuesday afternoon, but the response to each as a result has contrasted hugely. The curtain was to be brought down on Group C, at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow; a draw was all both sides needed to achieve their goals, so it was no surprise that this game was the first goalless draw of the World Cup this summer.
With qualification already assured, Didier Deschamps had the opportunity to silence the growing number of critics in France, Russia and across the watching world. Despite picking from what many believe is the best young pool of players in the game, Deschamps set his team up to play with the hand break on in the first two games of the tournament; Les Bleus may have taken six points, but they flattered to deceive. Instead of making a statement and putting in the kind of performance that would convince everyone they are major contenders for the trophy, they stuttered again, though that was down to Deschamps’ approach as much as anything. It was his 80th game in charge, more than any coach of the national side since the Second World War, yet he has little to show for his reign.
His opposite number, Age Hareide, has been looked at much more favourably, and rightly so, despite Denmark offering no more in attack than France. Hareide knew that progression to the last 16 was in their grasp, but with Australia facing a Peru side already out of the competition knowing a win could take them through, defeat wasn’t an option; playing safety first football seemed both the logical and sensible way to go. It could be argued that Denmark, knowing Peru were beating Australia, could have pushed to win the group late on, but Hareide had set his stall out and stuck to his guns.
Both sides made changes by choice, but the biggest one for Denmark was enforced; they had to find a new solution in attack, with Yussuf Poulsen suspended. Martin Braithwaite replaced him, while Nicolai Jorgensen made way for Andreas Cornelius and Andreas Christensen moved into midfield to help Thomas Delaney keep the shape and unleash Christian Eriksen. Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba were among those rested fo France.
From a defensive point of view, Denmark were excellent; Steven N’Zonzi, in for Pogba, didn’t put anywhere near enough pressure on in midfield, while Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann were cut off from Olivier Giroud. France’s rigidness made their life easy, but Christensen was particularly impressive, winning the ball and keeping it simple at every turn. Martin Jorgensen, the Huddersfield Town defender, came in and seemed to enjoy the physical battle with Giroud, too.
If there can be a criticism of the Danish performance, though, it has to be with the way they set up in attack. Losing Poulsen was, without doubt, a major blow, but instead of keeping continuity with Jorgensen, Hareide decided to bring in Braithwaite and Cornelius who, while imposing at 6 foot 5, is not nearly as intelligent as the man he was replacing in his movement. As a result, the direct balls that were so effective in the two previous games just didn’t have the same impact; but for one cross from Cornelius in the first half that almost found him, and a shot wide in the second half, Eriksen was barely involved. Braithwaite brought something different to the right-hand side with his pace and propensity to run at Lucas Hernandez, the French left-back, but there was a sense that, had Jorgensen been on the pitch, the attacking cohesion would have been much better for Denmark.
Looking at their results, and in a way their performances, in the group stage, it would be easy to suggest that to stop Denmark, you must simply stop Eriksen. But marking the Tottenham man alone will not be enough, in part because of his linkup play with Jorgensen and in part because Pione Sisto, the lively left-winger, can also change games. France did not stop either Eriksen or Sisto specifically, but they couldn’t get into the game because Cornelius was not bringing them into play. Hareide clearly has a system in mind when it comes to the attack involving Jorgensen, Poulsen, Eriksen and Sisto. One of them may have been suspended, but Denmark looked lost without the focal point, who simply must return to the side when they face Croatia in the last 16.
Lessons will be learnt for Denmark and, whatever happens, they have fulfilled their potential at this World Cup by getting out of the group stage. France were flat and unimaginative in midfield, but Croatia will pose all sorts of different questions. Jorgensen and Poulsen should both return to the side on Sunday in Nizhny Novgorod, giving the Danes the best possible chance of making the quarter finals.
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