Back in September, Poland — until then, undefeated group leaders — were annihilated at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, sent back home with a 4-0 defeat. Denmark’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup for the fifth time in history was back on track. And the triumph finally signalled a definite break with the 15-year reign of Morten Olsen, which ended two years ago with the play-off defeat against neighbours Sweden in Euro 2016 qualification.
“This was the day, when Åge Hareide left Morten Olsen’s shadow behind him,” the newspaper Jyllands-Posten wrote. Denmark’s Norwegian manager was praised for his tactical masterpiece and creating a striking change to the playing style.
If Morten Olsen was the idealistic and stubborn Arsène Wenger-type, then Åge Hareide is a pragmatic José Mourinho kind of a manager. He has no specified philosophy, apart from wanting to move the ball into the final third of the pitch as soon as possible.
For years under Olsen, Denmark had employed Dutch-inspired passing football. Now Hareide decided to adjust his tactics to match the opponent. Something Olsen would almost never do. In the first meeting with the Poles in Warsaw last year, Denmark were several times punished by fast counter-attacks (and an inspired Robert Lewandowski) after dangerous losses of possession in their own half. It was not allowed to happen again. In the return, Hareide planned to play with long passes from the defensive line, giving the Poles no chance to counter.
The plan worked. The right-footed left-back on the night, Jens Stryger Larsen, and the left central defender, Andreas Bjelland, placed long diagonal passes towards the big right-sided attacker Andreas Cornelius and the onrushing right-back Henrik Dalsgaard. From there, Denmark won the physical battle. It all fell into place, and as the party was already on-going, things got even better when Nicklas Bendtner came onto the pitch for a much-celebrated comeback after almost two years out of the national team.
Denmark were back in the race for the tickets to the World Cup, and a play-off spot was secured with victories in Armenia and Montenegro and a draw against Romania. After a disappointing start to the qualifiers, Denmark now arrive into these games on a high, undefeated for more than a year.
During his first months in charge, Hareide tried to respect the past and the work of Olsen. Now he has realised that Denmark were actually longing for a change. The Danes do see their country as an exponent of offensive and creative football, but getting results is the real test, after the Olsen era ended with two failed qualifying campaigns.
“It was really brave. If it had failed, Hareide would have been slaughtered by the press. People would have asked: What kind of football is this? Are we now playing like Norway?” comments Flemming Berg, the head of talent development in Dansk Boldspil-Union, the Danish football federation. Berg is one of the most influential decision-makers within the sporting area of the federation.
Berg is currently reviewing and updating Morten Olsen’s legacy to Danish football: The manual The Red Thread,
which has for more than 10 years been the Bible to Danish football, based on Olsen’s philosophy. Berg underlines that DBU do not want to reject Olsen’s work. But they do want to renew parts of it and are fully behind Hareide’s changes.
There is a certain irony in the fact that the majority of the current squad of the national team was developed under Olsen’s philosophy. His imprint on talent development has been enormous, but it is not until now that the players have really flourished — and that within a very different playing style.
The best example is Christian Eriksen, who far too rarely fulfilled his potential under Olsen. It ought to be the perfect match but for some reason, it wasn’t. Eriksen was formed in Ajax, where Olsen had been the manager in the late 1990s. But in 57 games under Olsen, Eriksen only scored six goals. Under Hareide, the Tottenham player has scored 12 goals in 16 games and has been on the mark in each of the last six matches.
Without a doubt, Eriksen is the superstar on the Danish team, but generally speaking the players available to Hareide are better than for many years. The current group of players may be Denmark’s strongest since the finals in 2002 and 2004 when Tomasson, Grønkjær, Gravesen, Sørensen, Jørgensen and Laursen formed the spine of the team.
For the last few months, Hareide has shown that the clubs of the players do not matter to him. Followers of English football might struggle to understand why Brentford’s Andreas Bjelland is picked in central defence at the expense of Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen, who last Sunday impressed again against Manchester United. But Bjelland always performs well for the national team, he is left-footed and has a fine understanding with captain Simon Kjær.
Hareide has now found a mix that suits him well. His team has several strings to its bow. Up front, he has some physically strong players like Cornelius, Nicolai Jørgensen, and Yussuf Poulsen, but he also has the nimble dribbler Pione Sisto, who this season has seven assists for Celta Vigo, more than any other player in La Liga.
“We are the favourites. There is no reason to underact our role,” captain Kjær said this week.
The optimism is back, both among the players and within the media. But still with that little uncertainty after some eventful months where the Danish national team has changed its expression.
Under Olsen, the Danes always knew what kind of football to expect. Now they don’t under the pragmatic Åge Hareide.
Morten Glinvad is a Danish freelance journalist.