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Eriksen the bright light but state of Denmark in question for England test

<span>A <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/teams/denmark/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Denmark;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Denmark</a> fan in <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/teams/stuttgart/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Stuttgart;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Stuttgart</a> celebrates as <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/players/379408/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Christian Eriksen;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Christian Eriksen</a> scores during the opening game.</span><span>Photograph: Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Uefa/Getty Images</span>

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Denmark’s game against Slovenia on Sunday was how familiar it all felt. A side highly reliant on one outstanding creator taking the lead in a first half they controlled and then unexpectedly losing their way against physical opponents in the second half, leading to a great gnashing of teeth about what had gone wrong and why things weren’t as good as they had been at the last Euros. But for the fact that Slovenia scored an equaliser and Serbia didn’t, Denmark’s start was very similar to England’s.

To outsiders, the big story from the game was Christian Eriksen, who was brilliant in the first half, dropping deep, dictating the play and scoring the opening goal. Given he had a cardiac arrest in his previous game at the Euros, three years ago, the symbolism of return and recovery seemed obvious.

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But the sense was that Danes have heard all the resurrection stuff a bit too often, that however pleased they may be for Eriksen, they were mainly just irritated at two points dropped against the lowest-ranked side in the group.

The post-match press conference took on a weird dynamic: gentle lobs from foreigners about how brilliant it must be not to have, you know, briefly died this time, interspersed with forensic Danish grumbles about why the substitutions had been so delayed.

Even Eriksen, polite though he remained, seemed a little bored by talking about his recovery. He has, after all, made 106 appearances for club and country since his collapse, including playing in a World Cup. He too seemed more bothered by the result than by his own miraculous return.

At the last Euros the manager, Kasper Hjulmand, emerged as a vaguely heroic figure, impressively composed in the most trying of circumstances. Perhaps, in retrospect, he should have refused to complete the game against Finland after Eriksen’s collapse, but even though Denmark ended up losing that match and their subsequent fixture, against Belgium, they rallied and beat Russia 4-1 to reach the knockouts.

There they hammered Wales and edged past the Czech Republic before ultimately losing to England in extra time in the semi-final. It was Denmark’s best showing at a major tournament since 1992 and Hjulmand rightly took a lot of the credit.

But patience with him is fraying. This is a strong squad; every player is at a club in one of the top eight leagues in Europe by the Uefa ranking, and 20 of the 26 are at clubs in the top four. There is a feeling that Denmark, if not among the favourites, should at least be competitive, but they have not played well since the Nations League win over France in September 2022.

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The World Cup was a huge disappointment: a grim 0-0 draw against Tunisia, a late goal conceded to lose 2-1 to France and then a dismal 1-0 defeat to Australia. They may have qualified for the Euros top of their group, but there were away defeats to Kazakhstan and Northern Ireland amid a string of unconvincing displays.

Thomas Gravesen, as uncompromising as a pundit as he was as a midfielder, was critical of Hjulmand for not being more “visible” on the touchline, but given he was praised for his calmness three years ago, it seems a little unfair to condemn him for that now. The criticism, though, seems to be weighing on him; the statesman of three years ago has been replaced by a beleaguered figure.

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The bigger issue is the lack of structure. In that sense Eriksen’s performance against Slovenia was impressive and indicative of broader problems. He made seven key passes, three more than any other player in the first round of group games. While that reflects well on him and suggests that, after a difficult few months, both for Manchester United and the national team, he is returning to form, it also shows how reliant Denmark have become on him – almost as though he were the sort of playmaker who disappeared from football three decades ago.

The return to the back three used at the last Euros – albeit more of a 3-4-1-2 than the 3-4-3 of three years ago – does make sense, though, in giving Eriksen a platform in midfield. It also gets both Jonas Wind of Wolfsburg and United’s Rasmus Højlund into the side, although that does make them reliant on the wing-backs Alexander Bah and Victor Kristiansen for width.

The game against England will pose a very different challenge. There will be less onus on Denmark to take the game to their opponents. They can sit deep and use Eriksen to spring Wind and Højlund on the break, which may suit them better than dealing with the massed defences of Northern Ireland, Kazakhstan or Slovenia.

The issue at the moment, though, feels less to do with tactics than morale. There is a sense, very familiar to England, of a cycle coming to an end.