Removing the Romanticism from an Unexpected Victory: Denmark – Euro ’92.
Denmark’s victory in the Euro Championships in 1992 had all the ingredients of a unforgetful footballing fairytale. It is the story of a team who didn’t qualify for the finals who went onto win the thing, beating the World Champions, the French and the Dutch; surely this would be a story that was woven into the tapestry of footballing folklore?
The story itself starts well. As aforementioned, they failed to reach the finals in Sweden. In fact, they only got told that they were due to take part in the finals as they were preparing for a friendly against CIS. With the players wishing they were somewhere else, not playing a stinking friendly against the ‘ruddy commies’, manager, Richard Moller Nielsen, was looking to renovate his kitchen. So far, so good – - it contains them not actually qualifying through merit and a quirky story about a manager who was doing DIY in the summer. This surely must be a magical story and team!
It was only the trepid war situation in Yugoslavia that led to Denmark going to the championships. I can only presume that Mrs. Nielsen went without her kitchen that summer. If Denmark didn’t win this tournament, it would probably be remembered as the most boring of all International tournaments, for its goals per games were less than that of the much (and rightly so) maligned 1990 World Cup.
Now everyone is thinking, “Gee, this story sounds lovely! A team beat everyone’s expectations to go on and win! I bet they played wonderful football too!” Sorry to smash all illusions but no, Denmark played an anger-inducing defensive game.
It was left to Brian Laudrup to provide the entertainment, creativity and fleet-footed wizardry. Around him, the Danish team were full of straight-backed, no-nonsense, steel-toe capped defensive workers.
The reason why they won was obvious; they had little expectation on their extremely broad, Nordic shoulders. John Jensen, who would after this tournament, move to Arsenal, says it as it is, “There was no pressure on us at all, we could relax and just go out and play.” There was already cohesion in the team, as eight of the team had played together at some point at Danish super-club, Brondby.
Denmark didn’t have an easy run to become the champions though. They drew with England in their first game, and then lost to the attack-minded Swedes before beating France in the final group game, 2-1. Jean-Marie Papin scored France’s goal after eventual joint top-scorer, Henrik Larsen scored in the first ten minutes. Denmark were down and out as things stood but fate changed when Lars Elstrup, the former Luton Town player, scored in the 78th minute. This sent the Danes through to a semi-final between the Netherlands, who had names such as van Basten, Bergkamp and Rijkaard in their first eleven. After scoring early, Denmark looked to hold onto their lead but both Bergkamp and Rijkaard scored after Henrik Larsen, once of Aston Villa (played no games), scored two precious goals. It went to penalties and it was van Basten who missed his to send Nielsen’s men to the final.
The Final against the World Champions, Germany
Their opponents here were a newly reformed Germany. The West Germany side of 1990, the World Cup winners, had majority rule over this side, with only the ginger-haired Matthias Sammer being East German. With Karl-Heinz Riedle and Jurgen Klinsmann up-front and DM15 man-Thomas Häßler behind them, they were a potent attacking side. For the German deity Franz Beckenbauer, this team, will “probably be unbeatable for years”. This was meant to be the next arena for Germany to show off their footballing talents and the next step in world domination. It wasn’t.
The Euro 92 Final symbolised a new trend in football – the flat-back four. This was while Germany continued playing their sweeper system that had proved so successful in 1990 for them. It was this new defensive platform that typified everything ‘Danish’ in 1992.
In the opening exchanges, the ball moved around each defence without much direction behind it – - like watching school children playing Rounders, throwing the ball around each post – - it was excruciatingly painful. This was natural given the emphasis on having extra numbers in defence for each team. Klinsmann was the only person looking to harry the Danish defenders whilst the German five-man defence easily outnumbered the Danish strikers and wingers. It was boring, bland and a thoroughly wet contest.
Nevertheless, always trust a Laudrup to liven proceedings. From his position supporting the lone striker, he gradually found himself dropping deeper and deeper, picking up the ball in midfield positions and playing quick passes to the midfielders running into the spaces he left. This movement sparked the game – - the passes were quicker, the movement sharper and the amount of shots increased.
This movement was calculated and intelligent. By playing in a traditional second-striker role, he found himself being marked by the countless German defenders. They often stepped up the pitch to go and mark him out of the game; they were comfortable doing this because they knew they had a sweeper and central defender behind them to help if Laudrup evaded their tackles.
This movement was not the catalyst for Denmark’s first goal, however. It came from a routine and predictable hoof out of Peter Schmeichel’s hands. The alehouse punt ended up on the head of the Danish #9, who, up until that point, only looked to lose the ball with a heavy touch at every opportunity. Nevertheless, it was his poorly directed header to the wings that caused some calamitous defending from both teams – - between two German and two Danish players, they managed to slide tackle eachother once and it was the Danish slide-tackle that led to the now, wonderful #9, Povlsen, sending a ball to John Jensen on the fringes of the penalty box – - who confidently put right foot through the ball, sending it past Bodo Illgner, who ducked as it flew past his head, looking to protect his face from a Jensen thunderbolt.
Germany looked to get into the game; particularly Sammer and Effenberg, who looked to grab the game by its gooch and drag it to look like something resembling entertainment. Their penetration through the Danish midfield stopped as soon as they reached the Danish backline though, whose narrowness caused an impenetrable Danish barrier of pink, fleshy meat. This narrowness was the natural position for the Danish, who did not have any direct wingers to close down. The German width all had to come through their two wing backs, Brehme and Reuter – - however, they struggled to get forward with the pace that Sammer and Effenberg were moving defence into attack. Everything therefore went through the middle of the pitch, restricting the options that Denmark had to worry about. For all the huffing and puffing from the German midfielders, the Danish were happy to sit and restrict the space in the middle of the park.
When the Germans did get the ball to their wing-backs in advanced areas of the pitch, the Danish defence were as tall as the oldest of Redwoods and defended admirably.
The role of Klinsmann played in the Danish defence too. Jurgen cut an isolated figure up-front, Reidle looked nervous to get too involved with the physical Danish defence and floated around to find spaces, without really influencing the game. Klinsmann was being man-marked tightly by Piechnik whose mobility was considerably better than his partner, Olsen. As seen in Italia 90, Klinsmann used his pace to drop deep quickly and link the play – - against Piechnik, he was not allowed time to collect the ball and lay it off – - whilst Olsen sat deeper and read the play, playing as an auxiliary sweeper. With nobody looking to run beyond Klinsmann, Olsen was comfortable at just reading and tidying up when needed.
As the first-half progressed, Denmark resorted to the purest of time-wasting tactics – - passing the ball between the defence and then passing it back to Schmeichel, who started the whole process off. Denmark were just looking to hold onto the lead, nothing else. This was not, in anyway, pretty, romantic or idyllic football.
The second-half started off very much in the same vein. Denmark put eight people behind the ball, dropped deep and made Germany try and play through them. Without wide players in the final third, Germany had no method of creating gaps in between the defence and midfield. With Germany and Berti Vogts so stubbornly committed to their 5-3-2 system, there was only going to be one eventual winner.
To their credit, Germany did commit more men forward. With the Danish wide midfielders playing so narrow, Brehme and Reuter felt they could really become part of the midfield. This led to Germany dominating the second-half possession wise.
This did not worry Denmark, they were comfortable placing everyone apart from Laudrup and the limited Povlsen, behind the ball. This was not a match for a neutral; each team struggled to weave passes together. For Germany, it was because of the Denmark defence and just pure outnumbering in every area of their half; whilst for Denmark, they were unbelievably limited technically and apart from the odd counter-attack, looked to solidify any correct stereotype of them being a defensive side.
The second goal came from a lucky break, an obvious handball and a cultured turn and an accurate strike. Only two out of those four important events actually are positive or showed the Danish team had any attacking quality whatsoever. Denmark went on to win the game 2-0, with a cloud of disappointment inevitably hanging over the stadium, as the game was unbearably poor and scrappy.
As seen in 2004, defensive-sides can win European championships. This one, like Rehhagel’s Greek side, stuck to its strengths and played to them wonderfully. Creative? No. Innovative? No. Entertaining to watch? Oh dear no. Frustrating to watch and a happened to chance themselves some lucky breaks? You bet’cha!
Denmark, for all criticism aimed at them, were impressive. Their defensive mindset and layout looked remarkably similar to the shape deployed by Ottmar Hitzfeld with the Swiss National Team at the World Cup, so in a sense, their approach was modern and innovative. Playing with a thick batch of eight players will continue to be a strategy for a manager who has such defensively minded players in their squad.
What it does show however, that quite often behind narratives proclaiming a tournaments romanticism and the ever-present ‘underdog’ mentality – - it is quite often lies and pure fabrications. This Denmark team, for all their success, showed little to capture the imagination of viewers and in fact, when you think about the Danish National Team, you hark back to the era of the Danish Dynamite in the 80’s. Albeit unsuccessful, the team was packed full of exciting, spontaneous players such as Preben Elkjær, Michael Laudrup and Jan Molby. In fact, Michael Laudrup refused to play under Richard Moller Nielson, precisely because he felt the team had no place for his ad-lib genre of football. That, itself, tells the whole story of the Danish team in 1992.