With one pre-planned tactical switch, Denmark extinguished the Dragons’ fire to force Wales into an anti-climatic exit…
Denmark were carried into the last 16 on a tidal wave of emotion. But having showed more courage than anyone could reasonably expect in the group stages, the Danes used their heads to ease past Wales into the quarter-finals.
More than being out-fought in Amsterdam, Robert Page’s side were simply out-thought by Kasper Hjulmand. The Danes had to reach for Plan B but once their manager had tweaked his approach, Page had no counter.
It made for an anti-climatic conclusion to another creditable European Championship campaign for Wales. Qualification from the group was always the aim when Page’s side embarked upon their cross-continent jaunt, but once into the knockout stage the hope, if not expectation, was for more than a dispiriting defeat in the ‘Dam.
It certainly didn’t start in that manner. Wales were sharper and more threatening from the off and they created shooting opportunities, if not big chances. Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey both had sights of Kasper Schmeichel’s goal during a flurry of seven attempts in the opening 20 minutes – a quarter of the total number of shots they took though three games in the group stage.
Bale, from the right, was linking up with Ramsey coming from deeper and Denmark were stretched. But Hjulmand, presumably, was aware of the fact that the Wales duo have created more chances for each other than any other pair in the European Championship finals since the start of the 2016 tournament.
Because upon the 20-minute mark, Denmark seamlessly shifted their shape. With Andreas Christensen moving into midfield, the momentum lurched wildly in the Danes’ favour.
Judging by the effortless manner in which Denmark moved from a back three – or a five as it had become – to a four, it was clearly a plan they had rehearsed. As soon as Christensen attached himself to Ramsey, Wales’ threat was extinguished.
Not only did the Chelsea defender nullify Ramsey, Christensen was also able block off the direct route into Kieffer Moore’s feet. Stuck as the filling in a Christensen-Simon Kjaer sandwich, the Cardiff striker had little hope of gaining meaningful possession high up the pitch, especially while he was jumping with his hands tied behind his back – almost literally.
Unable to go down the middle, Wales had no more joy in wide areas. Denmark’s wing-backs have flown forward with almost reckless abandon so far during this tournament and Page had hoped that Bale and Dan James might flourish in the space vacated by Joakim Maehle and Jens Stryger Larsen. Initially they did. But as soon as the wing-backs became full-backs, Bale and James could offer no outlet.
Andreas Christensen made more interceptions than any other player against Wales (3).
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 26, 2021
Having gained the upper hand in the tactical battle, Denmark could rely on their technical superiority to shine through. Maehle still penetrated but he broke lines with his passing rather than his bursts with the ball.
That was how the opener was created. Maehle split Wales by finding the floating Mikkel Damsgard, who shifted it on to Kasper Dolberg. Back in the familiar surroundings of the Johan Cruyff Arena, the Denmark centre-forward finished beautifully around the despairing lunge of Chris Mepham and Danny Ward’s token dive.
If Denmark’s first was a work of art, their second was a clusterf*ck.
Moore has been a marked man among the Euros officials and the striker was denied what seemed a valid shout for a free-kick, even if he sought contact from Kjaer. Aggrieved, Wales never recovered their composure. Martin Braithwaite skinned the already cautioned Joe Rodon and though his cross failed to find a teammate, Neco Williams did the Barcelona striker a solid by presenting the ball straight to Dolberg with a hopeless, Sunday League-swipe of his left foot. Dolberg’s touch and finish was infinitely more assured to kill Wales’ realistic hopes of a fightback.
That isn’t to say they caved in. Wales grafted but lacked ingenuity or belief while Denmark’s confidence soared. The game was won long before Maehle and Braithwaite helped themselves to a goal each in the final few minutes, either side of a Harry Wilson red card that summed up the frustration of the Dragons.
So Wales, proud as always having achieved their stated objective, will embark upon the final leg of a journey that had taken them 5,350 miles upon arrival in Amsterdam. In contrast, Denmark had boarded one 386-mile flight having played their group stage at home. That freshness was evident, but the Danes have been through an entirely different ordeal of their own. Their recovery is an inspiration and though momentum alone could take them even beyond Netherlands or Czech Republic in the quarter-finals, Denmark deserve credit for more than just their spirit.