Denmark Euro 2012 Focus – Having neutralised Netherlands, attention shifts to suffocating Portugal

The predominant tactical trend emerging during the opening stages of the Euro 2012 is the battle between extreme proactivity – a team primarily set out to press high up the pitch, moving the ball rapidly and interchanging positions in attack – and reactivity. However much the English laud their backs-to-the-wall stalemate with France, the Netherlands ultimately futile attempt to break down Denmark’s resistance illustrated the trend in its most distinct form.

Bert van Marwijk’s men hit 32 shots at goal, to the Danes’ eight attempts. They triumphed in the corner count too, winning 11 to Denmark’s four. If the possession the Dutch enjoyed – 55 percent – also seems a little conservative, a breakdown of the territories in which both teams primarily had the ball is demonstrative of the Netherlands’ territorial advantage. Much of Denmark’s possession came deep in their own half, a reflection of the intensity with which The Oranjes attack forced them towards their own goal. Holland, on the other hand, attacked rabidly from the flanks – Arjen Robben’s incisive darts towards the heart of the Denmark defence a particular feature of their play.

In spite of this, one never sensed that Denmark were consumed by a fear of conceding. It is often the case when teams espousing diametrically opposing philosophies meet, the torrents of pressure that the attacking side exerts on the defenders creates the perception that a breakthrough is inevitable – think of the mystical concoction of intensive pressing deep in opposition territory abetted by rhythmic passing which has doomed the majority of Barcelona’s opponents in the last four seasons. One Klaas-Jan Huntelaar chance and a Stephan Andersen aberration aside – what was the goalkeeper thinking as he passed straight to Arjen Robben? – the sense of imminent danger never arrived.

In part, the lack of cohesion with which the Netherlands attacked is to blame. The Dutch, you sensed, were relying on moments of individual inspiration to carve open the defence. Too often there were too few runners into the penalty area to meet crosses; too few players reading the intention of the playmaker as he made the defence-splitting pass.

To pinpoint Holland’s inadequacies would be, however, to ignore the rigorously planned defensive system Denmark perfected to constrict the space in which the Dutch forwards had to work. The two-man defensive midfield screen of William Kvist and Niki Zimling were rarely found more than five metres ahead of Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer at centre-back. Lars Jacobsen and Simon Poulsen completed what was at times ostensibly a four-man centre-back brick wall. Each, suffice to say, performed imperiously. Robin van Persie and company were suffocated.

Furthermore, while the main critique of England’s obdurate showing against France concerned their inability to maintain possession, there was an admirable sensibility to the way in which, at crucial junctures in the game, the Danes retained the ball; slowing the tempo and allowing the overworked defence time to recuperate and ease their way up the pitch. Methodical in nature and pragmatic in approach, this was possession for possession’s own sake – a tactic Jose Mourinho spoke openly of using when manager of FC Porto – designed to sterilise the game.

A similarly fastidious performance against Portugal on Wednesday would all but guarantee Olsen’s men a quarter-final spot. The impressive manner in which the Dutch were neutralised suggests it is a task the Danes are very capable of achieving.

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