The vast majority of teams that make it to the World Cup don’t have a quart of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream’s chance in Jason Whitlock’s freezer of winning the thing. The latter stages of this edition feel particularly preordained, like if one of Brazil or Germany or Spain don’t win the tournament then either the Russian government will have conclusively demonstrated their much-ballyhooed cyberwarfare omnipotence by hacking soccer and ensuring the host team wins the trophy, or the soccer gods will have finally smiled on Lionel Messi and granted him the trophy he so richly deserves.
This fact of international soccer colors how the game is played. This is in large part why most of the “How They Play” sections you’ll see in our World Cup preview posts tend to sound similar in parts, with many teams sitting deep and compact in defense, attempting to weather the storm, and then striking out on the counter to try and nick a quick goal. When so many teams are so outclassed by the handful of truly elite squads, it’s only logical that most teams would resort to tactics specifically designed to pull off upsets.
In a knockout tournament like the World Cup, underdog tactics can be very effective. What generally separates an effective counterattacking team from a hopelessly defensive one is whether or not the team has a singular star attacker or two who can make the most of the couple chances their teams create. Knockout tournaments aren’t competitions of philosophies or consistency, they’re competitions of moments. If your attacker can capitalize on those moments on any given day better than your opponent, you just might find yourself toppling a bigger side and making a deeper run than expected.
Sure, a true underdog won’t win the World Cup, but a quarterfinal or even semifinal appearance isn’t out of the question. And for the vast majority of World Cup competitors, going that far brings more than enough glory to last a lifetime.
Denmark are your typical midrange World Cup hopeful. Their range of potential fates in the tournament is pretty wide, though of course they will not win the whole thing. It would be a disappointment but by no means a shock if they failed to make it out of their group; similarly, it would be a pleasant though not heart attack-inducing surprise if they won a knockout round. The difference between the high and low ends of Denmark’s conceivable spectrum of outcomes rests firmly on the shoulders of their man of moments, Christian Eriksen. Luckily for Denmark, Eriksen is definitely good enough to carry them.
Goalkeepers: Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester City), Jonas Lössl (Huddersfield Town), Frederik Rønnow (Brøndy)
Defenders: Jannik Vestergaard (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Simon Kjær (Sevilla), Jonas Knudsen (Ipswich Town), Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), Henrik Dalsgaard (Brentford), Jens Stryger Larsen (Udinese)
Midfielders: Michael Krohn-Dehli (Deportivo La Coruña), William Kvist (Copenhagen), Thomas Delaney (Borussia Dortmund), Christian Eriksen (Tottenham), Viktor Fischer (Copenhagen), Lukas Lerager (Bordeaux), Lasse Schöne (Ajax), Pione Sisto (Celta Vigo)
Forwards: Nicolai Jørgensen (Feyenoord), Martin Braithwaite (Bordeaux), Kasper Dolberg (Ajax), Yussuf Poulsen (RB Leipzig), Andreas Cornelius (Atalanta)
Christian Eriksen is one of the more under-appreciated creative geniuses in the game. This is probably because he’s more efficient than he is flashy. He steadily puts up goals and assists numbers that outpace those of plenty other attacking midfielders with bigger names, but because he does so with subtle trickery rather than blaring physicality, with slight taps and flicks of the ball rather than showy freestyle moves, it’s easy to overlook the Tottenham player’s less conspicuous but plenty substantive abilities.
Which isn’t to say Eriksen’s style of play requires fluency in football twitterese to appreciate. Eriksen can and regularly will take your breath away with the quality of his precise, defense-breaking passes, his clean and powerful ball-striking technique that he uses to send the thing howling into the upper corners of the net or onto the foreheads of his teammates from both open play and from set pieces, and his understated but ruthlessly effective dribbling style. He assists all the time, scores a whole lot, wows you with his intelligence every match, dominates the tempo of matches by knowing when to play fast and risky or slow and safe with regularity, and, at some point each time you watch him, he makes you wonder if there really are any players at his position in the entire game that are any better than him at his best.
Eriksen is the truth, and with Denmark he’s given all the freedom he could want to demonstrate it. It’ll be loads of fun watching him do so on a team that revolves entirely around allowing that to happen.
Pione Sisto will probably go to some midtable-ish Premier League club in the next couple years and immediately become a cult favorite. To stay ahead of the curve, you should hop on the Sisto bandwagon now. There’s lots of room, and the ride is a blast.
Sisto is a 23-year-old Uganda-born Danish winger who makes a habit out of embarrassing Spanish defenders with La Liga club Celta Vigo. His style is immediately eye-catching—what with his lightning quickness and venomous right foot—and the more you watch him the more appreciation you gain for this fairly unique player.
Sisto is very fast—that much is obvious the moment you watch him cycle up the gears as he gets up to top speed. However, he’s not your prototypical speed burner who gets on the ball, puts his head down, and steams down the touchline. Instead, Sisto uses his acceleration more than his max speed when the ball is at his feet, preferring to stand a defender upright when approaching one, analyze which direction holds the most promise for his goal of advancing closer to the danger area, and with a single big touch or two warp into open space, where he will then slow things up and analyze once more which of the possible next moves would be most advantageous. This makes Sisto much less prone to the traditional winger’s constant turnovers and failed dribbles, which makes him that much more effective as a player.
Other than those warp-speed bursts into space, Sisto’s other trademark move is the chipped pass. Like a FIFA 06 player spamming the over-powered lofted through ball button, Sisto loves to dink the ball over the heads of his opponents to send teammates galloping into open space. He does so with a neat little scoop of his foot, too, a quick and deep backlift and only a minimal follow-through. Sisto is primarily a creator who prefers slipping into the central channels of the pitch to uncork his sand wedge of a right foot, and when surrounded by runners who are always on the move, he can be a constant source of threatening passes and shots. Look for him to be Eriksen’s right-hand man in Denmark’s attacks, and remember to tell your friends you knew all about him way back when once he’s balling out for Everton in a couple years.
Denmark’s manager Åge Hareide is aware that as Christian Eriksen goes, so go Denmark. To that end, his tactical strategy can be summed up thusly: put Eriksen in the middle of it all, and let him do his thing.
Denmark let Eriksen orchestrate everything the team does when in possession of the ball. Being the smart guy he is, and noticing the speed and dribbling skills of the teammates around him, Eriksen loves to raise the tempo by cuing up brisk, direct attacks aimed at overwhelming the opposition before they have time to get set. Denmark want to attack early, often, and fast, and they fight to get the ball back by pressing the opponent so that they can get back the ball and initiate one of their quick attacks as soon as possible.
Denmark aren’t exactly a defensive team. They have too many good players up and down the roster—the majority of the squad plays in the biggest leagues in Europe—to hunker down in their own penalty box and concede all the initiative to the other side. They are, however, cautious in their approach, and prefer to play on the counter than to break down defenses with intricate passing moves high up the pitch. There are more ways of being attacking than playing exactly like Germany or Spain, and Denmark are one of those alternative kinds of attacking outfits.
If Eriksen and Co. can repeat the kind of performances that got them to the World Cup—like the decisive 5-1 win against Ireland in the play-off that stamped their tickets to Russia—they should make it to the knockout round. If so, they’d definitely prove one of the harder outs for the big teams that have ambitions of winning it all.
All times Eastern
June 16, 12 p.m.: Peru vs. Denmark at Mordovia Arena
June 21, 8 a.m.: Denmark vs. Australia at Samara Arena
June 26, 10 a.m.: Denmark vs. France at Luzhniki Stadium