Morten Olsen won 102 caps for Denmark. The same number as Steve Staunton won for the Republic of Ireland. Olsen went on to manage his national side for 15 years - 163 games - which, to put in perspective, were Staunton awarded the same generosity, we’d have him in charge from that very “I’m the gaffer” moment back in 2006, until the start of the Euro 2022 qualification campaign.
Olsen was a ‘football man’. A personality that immediately won him hero-status in a nation longing for the return to the romantic days of Michael Laudrup, after - what in their eyes was - a mid-90’s lull of mediocrity: whilst their triumphant victory in Euro ’92 is well documented, you’d find many Danes who have fonder memories of their route to the Semi’s of Euro ’84, purely because of the ‘renhend’ (purity) of the football that got them there.
The first sign of Olsen’s ethos was his continued outspokenness against managers who play a 4-4-2 – to the extent where he actually threatened quitting if his side were made play that way. It was all about pace, and attacking wing-play – “the Danish way” – and considering the amount time he was in charge, it’s hard to argue that the nation disagreed with him.
Olsen was to international management, what Arsene Wenger is to club. And just like Wenger, no one in the Danish FA was going to make the call for Olsen to step down, other than himself – a moment that eventually arrived after his failure to lead the Danes to Euro 2016.
The Age old era
Age Hareide was probably the last man on the lips of Danish fans when Olsen was scribbling his resignation letter. Not only had they not hired a manager since Euro 2000 and likely forgotten how this process worked, but he also went against many of the unsaid rules in Danish football.
Firstly, Hareide was a Norwegian. A neighbouring nation, one that Denmark has a bloody history with. A footballing nation most would view as inferior. He was also an ex-Norwegian International manager. A role he ultimately failed to succeed in, achieving bare competitiveness in his qualification campaigns. A proud Norwegian not good enough to even lift his own national side: what use would he be to Danish football?
The second pain-point, perhaps even more of a dagger, was his style. Hareide immediately brought back a more simplified structure to Denmark’s play. He rid of Olsen’s focus on building his teams around key men, attacking in nature, and went for formation rigidity instead – fitting men around the structure, not structure around the men. With a less talented group of players than, say, Olsen could brag, it’s definitely arguable that his strategy was sound – and even reminds you of ethos’s much closer to home. But it did come with risks – Christian Eriksen, for starters, one of the best young midfielders in Europe, and the pride of Denmark, would likely see less of the ball.
Luckily for Hareide though, regardless of the post-appointment shoulder shrugs, the Danes patience held firm from Olsen’s days, and they afforded him time. Having not qualified for Euro 2016, he had the bones of 10 months and 5 friendlies to work with his squad in preparation for the World Cup Qualifiers. Performances were steady throughout – and after a shakey start to the campaign, taking only 4 points from a potential 9, things started to get an awful lot better for Hareide. Performances were basic, but results and momentum were building. And since the 1-0 loss at home to Montenegro in October of last year, the Danes have gone on a ten-game unbeaten run. A 4-0 battering of Poland, eventual group winners, the pick of the lot.
The New Danish Way
This weekend, Hareide is expected to repeat much of what he’s done over the last year – he’s not one for tactically shifting his side to counter an oppositions threat. For starters, he will line out with a flat back four – partnered in the centre by the growingly formidable pair of Simon Kjaer of Sevilla and Andreas Bjelland of Brentford. Henrik Dalsgaard, another Brentford-man, misses out through injury, so it’s likely that Peter Ankersen and Jens Larsen will fill the full back roles. Don’t expect a huge amount of touch-line running by either of these – so in that sense, Stephen Ward and Cyrus Christie can expect a slightly easier night than against, say, Wales.
In midfield, the lack of surprises repeats itself – only question really is how they line up. Thomas Delaney (no, we can’t have him), currently at Werder Bremen, and on the radar of many top European Clubs will sit with aging local hero, William Kvist (we believe they call him “The Danish Glenn Whelan”). And with a ‘free to do whatever the hell you want’ role assigned to Christian Eriksen, the 25 year old (yes, twenty five) ex-Ajax prodigy.
Point of note here is that Eriksen’s role, whilst still similar to how Pochettino (who calls him ‘golazo’) plays him, will vary slightly due to their direct approach. He will get the ball less off the full backs, and more off the front three. Sweeping up second balls. Meaning he’ll likely be less tiki-taka, deeper in the midfield, and more of a threat taking darting runs off the more advanced men – his 8 goals in qualifying a testament to that. More Aaron Ramsey, say, than Joe Allen. Which, based on how we struggled to get close to the latter in Cardiff, we view this as a more positive thing.
How we mark him without Meyler, however, still remains our greatest open question.
Up front is where the only real decisions for Hareide seem to exist. His ‘comfort’ decision would be to choose a front three of Pione Sisto, the Celta Vigo starlet who sits top of La Liga assists charts, Nicolai Jorgensen, of Feyenoord, and Serie A’s, Andreas Cornelius – but it’s quite possible that he’ll opt to choose the more mobile Yussuf Poulsen of RB Leipzeig over the tougher, Cornelius. Both, however, it should be noted, of towering stature at 6’4 – and angled long balls to this flank, regardless of who plays, will be a common feature for Ward and McClean to combat.
Jorgensen will lead the attack. Another young (26), tall (6’3), player of Feyenoord. 23 goals in 40 games since he joined from FC Copenhagen last year.
It’s young. It’s strong. It’s big. It’s perhaps a-la a Mourinho side – with one sprinkle of difference: they know how to fit in a number 10.
And, of course, if all else fails, they’ve got greatest player in the world, Niklas Bendtner, painting his nails on the touchline – ready for his own version of ‘combat’.
Manchester City finished the 1981/82 season in a lethargic tenth place. Martin O’Neill joined from Norwich at the start of that season, and returned at the end of it. In his short stay there he met Norwegian teammate Age Hareide for the first time. 36 years later they relinquish that footballing relationship, with more than just Maine Road in common. Neither are here for style. Neither are here to impress the footballing Gods. They’re just here to win.
And maybe with the added support of Hareide’s fellow-Norwegians, it could just tip it our way.