We’ve reached the quarterfinals of Euro 2020(1), which is when fans of the countries still in contention really start dreaming, and the rest realize that fucking-off-of-work time is probably going to run out with only three Monday-Friday match days left (#DayDrinkingIsForAllSeasons). For the teams that remain, all it takes from here is one good performance, combined with maybe a slice of luck in some way, and suddenly you’re in the final and the actual trophy is present. Everybody will be making a case for why they’ll be at Wembley in a week and a half.
England will point to being the “big fish in the small pond” half of the draw, with an upstart Ukrainian team next that has lost as many games as it’s won so far. Italy will fancy getting to see a shell of a Belgium team if both Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard can’t play in the quarterfinal, and then seeing either a Spain team that can be anything from one minute to the next or Switzerland. Belgium will think if it can somehow survive the next game and get both those players back, it’ll be their time. They also have the best forward left in the tournament, which never hurts. Spain will be counting on being the good side of anything, and Switzerland already took out France, so who should they be afraid of now?
But there’s no reason that Denmark shouldn’t like their chances as much as anyone, and no team should be aching to face them either. And that’s not because of whatever and however much of an emotional quest they might be on for Christian Eriksen, though we obviously can’t discount that. It’s an immeasurable factor.
No, Denmark is really good. And they’ve actually been pulverizing just about anyone who’s come across them, even if the results don’t always look that way.
It’s hard to really gauge Denmark because of the unique, hopefully never repeated circumstances they’ve been through. They dominated Finland, both before and after Eriksen’s collapse, but obviously nothing that happened after was normal. They conceded and didn’t score via players that clearly weren’t there, mentally. Play that game again under normal circumstances, and Denmark probably run out 3-0 winners.
Again, the game against Belgium was played under unique circumstances, and not just for Denmark. It certainly had to be awkward for Belgium, so the fact that Denmark really were the better team that day should come with however many grains of salt you deem necessary. But they were, and lost because their strikers are still not up to snuff and because Belgium has De Bruyne. This could be a problem down the road too, but we’ll get to that.
But after that, Denmark absolutely leathered Russia and Wales, who obviously are just Russia and Wales, but beating any team so severely at this level is worthy of note. And their 4-1 and 4-0 wins weren’t flattering them, as they doubled up both those opponents in expected-goals as well. Admittedly, one game expected-goal measures can be misleading or weird, but in this case Denmark was miles better than either of those teams.
Overall for the tourney, the only teams with better expected-goal differences than Denmark are Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands, and none of them saw Belgium in the group stage. Denmark have the second-most shots and shots on target in the tournament, both behind Italy, and the Azzurri have played a half hour more. Denmark also have the third-lowest post-shot expected goals-against, a measure of the chances you’re giving up as well as the amount, behind Italy and England.
Digging a little deeper, Denmark’s reason for hope mostly centers on possibly having the best midfielder left in the tournament in Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. Seriously, he’s been Pogba-like, without any of the chatter surrounding him or seeing his mother fight the mother of a teammate (god bless the French). At Tottenham, and Southampton before that, Højbjerg was seen as just a destroyer, shielding a team’s defense from having to do anything serious. For Denmark, he’s everything. He leads the team, and is among the tournament leaders, in key passes (passes leading directly to a scoring chance), passes into the final third of the field, and passes into the box, as well as shot-creating actions (the two things leading up to a shot, such as pass, dribble, or drawing a foul). He has been N’Golo Kanté and Pogba wrapped in one package.
What he isn’t doing, wingback Joakim Mæhle is (the lesson of this whole tournament is that Atalanta is the most entertaining team in the world, and perhaps international games should be measured on how many Atalanta players one team has vs. the other). Mæhle is generally second on the team behind Højbjerg in all those creative stats, except he’s doing it from wingback, and he’s also chipped in two goals. Just between the two of them, Denmark are a dynamic attacking force.
There are concerns of course. For all the things Højbjerg and Mæhle are creating, you still need someone to finish them off. Kasper Dolberg replaced an injured Yussuf Poulsen up front against Wales and scored twice, and the Danes might want to think about keeping it that way. Poulsen and Martin Braithwaite have been extremely wasteful and neither have ever been prolific anywhere in their careers, and if Dolberg is on a roll they may just want to ride it. Knockout games can swing on one goal, or one goal missed (ask Germany).
Second, even if Højbjerg and Mæhle play like stars, they’re not in the same class as some of the players Denmark might run up against, like what they saw with De Bruyne or Lukaku. Then again, if Gareth Southgate is only playing one of those types of players at a time as he has so far with England, it might not matter until the final.
Denmark might have the easiest draw in the quarters against the Czechs, as long as they don’t try and pick up the ball like a bag of groceries like some people. Then it could be England at Wembley, which isn’t exactly easy, but this is England we’re talking about. Never a side that’s struggled to blow its own foot off. Or Ukraine, which Denmark would be heavily favored over.
And then it’s just one game from there. Anything can happen in one game. The Danes can win it, and if they continue playing as they have, they would absolutely deserve to.