KHARKOV, UKRAINE - JUNE 09: Niki Zimling of Denmark gestures during the UEFA EURO 2012 group B match between Netherlands and Denmark at Metalist Stadium on June 9, 2012 in Kharkov, Ukraine. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
It wasn't supposed to be like this, but once Denmark's midfield was given time, space, and a lead to protect, Holland were doomed.
This wasn't supposed to happen. When we said Group B of the 2012 European Championships was the 'Group of Death', we didn't really mean to include Denmark. The Scandinavians were an afterthought, the delicious little morsel for Germany, the Netherlands and Cristiano Ronaldo to feast on when they weren't annihilating one other in the battle for the quarterfinals. Denmark weren't supposed to win anything.
But now, won they have. Holland - ranked by most as the tournament's third best side - fell 1-0 thanks to Michael Krohn-Delhi's first half strike, and now we have to look at Denmark as a serious contender to advance. Win either of their next two matches, and the Danes will make it out of the group. It's not clear that they can replicate their feat against either Germany or Portugal, but what is clear is that Denmark fully deserved their victory by taking advantage of one major Dutch flaw.
Not enough has been made of the midfield system Holland use, featuring Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong in a 'double pivot' deep and Wesley Sneijder pushed far higher up the pitch. Denmark countered with a similar shape, where Ajax starlet Christian Eriksen assumed the attacking role while William Kvist and Niki Zimling played in front of the defence. There was plenty to talk about elsewhere on the pitch (especially in the disappointing performances from Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben), but it was in the midfield where the match was really won and lost.
If we ignore everyone on the pitch but the six central midfielders, we're presented with two interlocking triangles, with Wesley Sneijder picked up by the Zimling-Kvist pivot while Eriksen is marshalled by de Jong and van Bommel. The shapes are similar, but the style is not - the Danish players are all-arounders, while Holland's deeper midfielders are particularly skilled destroyers who aren't particlarly capable going forward.
The difference in styles means it's much more important for the Dutch to harass Denmark's deeper midfielders. Kvist and Zimling are capable of creating attacks in a way that their counterparts simply cannot. Holland operates as something of a broken team, with de Jong and van Bommel guarding a disturbingly weak defence, but for Denmark the side operates in a much more fluid (albeit inferior way).
In other words, the Danish attackers didn't really have to worry much about breaking up play through the middle of the pitch, because Holland were already doing that for them. Unless you're Eriksen and afraid of getting maimed by a particularly grisly tackle, van Bommel and de Jong simply aren't going to hurt you. At times, Sneijder was forced to drop back very deep to pick up the ball, and the problem with creating from deep eventually became so severe and so obviously that Bert van Marwijk resorted to playing Tottenham Hotspur's Rafael van der Vaart out of position in the pivot.
Dealing with Kvist and Zimpling, however, required a work-heavy technique known as pressing. Since those two are essentially the water-carriers of the Denmark play, it's possible to cut off the supply at the source by preventing them from having the time to execute attacks. At that point, play is forced to one of Simon Poulsen and Lars Jacobsen, and the Danes become far less dangerous. The problem is that it's very difficult to press effectively for ninety minutes. Even the fittest teams have to choose a time and a place to put that effort in, because otherwise they'll exhaust themselves.
Holland's plan seemed to be to use both Wesley Sneijder and one of the attacking three - which usually meant van Persie - to press Denmark heavily at the beginning of the match, preventing them from getting out of their own half and forcing turnovers in dangerous locations. It worked to perfection, leading to half an hour of Dutch dominance in which they might have taken the lead several times.
But, thanks to some poor finishing and decision making, they didn't. Instead, Krohn-Delhi snatched the game's only goal after jinking his way past Johnny Heitenga, and the match was turned on its head. The second attacking player started pressing for an equaliser rather than pressuring the Denmark centre, and suddenly the Kvist-Zimling partnership blossomed.
Sneijder, who had been composed and in control when he knew that the obvious sideways pass was covered, started to fluster, chasing ghosts in the midfield as the tandem got into the match for the first time. The Inter Milan star, already working incredibly hard when he had one player to mark, found himself with an impossible challenge when tasked by circumstance to stop two, and by the early stages of the second half he was a spent force.
And by that point, it was clear that the Danish midfield was completely running the game. Kvist and Zimling would turn every fruitless Dutch attack, parried expertly by Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger, into a particularly brutal riposte, carving effortlessly through Holland's centre before picking out Eriksen or one of the wingers. None of van Bommel, de Jong and van der Vaart were able to stop them (the first two seemed unsure as to which of the pairing would emerge from the shield to chase down the ball, and the third remains confused about the concept of 'defending').
When the Netherlands could adequately press Denmark's midfield, they completely dominated the match. But they failed to turn that into the sizable lead they needed, and eventually their high-risk strategy backfired. After a nigh-on endless stream of clear-cut chances in the first half, Holland only managed three in the second, and one came on what was essentially the pass of a lifetime by Sneijder.
Yes, Denmark were lucky to have escaped unscathed during the orange bombardment that characterised the opening exchanges. They were lucky to have scored on their first significant attack, too. But holding that lead once it was established was almost trivial, thanks to the effortless superiority of the midfield, and the major question of the second half was not how Denmark held out but why they failed to score more often*.
*The answer, of course, is that Eriksen had a very poor game by his standards, failing to take advantage of the space that some frankly naive Dutch defending gave him to play passes into. For partial credit, I would also accept 'Lars Jacobsen's crossing'.
It's a little bit difficult to imagine the Danes repeating their feat against Germany or Portugal. But then again, it was difficult to imagine them beating the Netherlands, and they managed it with a clear, straightforward plan, mixed in with a little luck. If the other two teams in the group remain as poor as they looked on Saturday, Denmark really could fight their way to the knockout rounds of this competition.