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Yet again, England lost control after scoring first – here’s why

Jordan Pickford and John Stones during England's Euro 2024 game against Denmark

England made the ideal start against Denmark when they took the lead through Harry Kane’s goal but once again found themselves on the back foot soon after.

Gareth Southgate’s team had to absorb long periods of second-half Serbia pressure in their opening game; on this occasion they were punished by Morten Hjulmand’s cracking strike 16 minutes after Kane’s.

England’s tendency to cede the initiative was also a problem during their painful 2018 World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia and the Euro 2020 final against Italy. In both matches, they failed to build on early first goals.

Regardless of whether England secure passage to the knockout rounds of Euro 2024, supporters will fear a repeat against the stronger opponents who await.

This is how England slipped into a familiar pattern against Denmark.

Dropping deep

After Harry Kane opened the scoring at Waldstadion, it immediately led to England’s back four retreating towards their own penalty area. It was like they were playing 20 yards closer to Jordan Pickford’s goal.

When Morten Hjulmand levelled from long-range there were two centre-backs in their area. Gareth Southgate’s backline should have been further up the pitch rather than inviting pressure. A touch map of the first half showed most of the action being in England’s half, which was because of them dropping deeper. It was the same story in their Group C opener against Serbia – only then they managed to hold on for their win.

Losing shape

Phil Foden had two good chances from the edge of the area and both were from a central No 10 role. They were among the more positive moves of the first half but England do lose balance when he drifts inside. At one point he chased a ball across to the other flank and Denmark were able to switch play.

England needed to be tighter as a midfield three. Jude Bellingham was playing further forward than Declan Rice and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Denmark were having joy playing through England with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Hjulmand exploiting space. As shown in the heat map below, Rice spent most of the match camped near England’s own penalty area.

Declan Rice's heatmap vs Denmark
Rice's first-half heatmap vs Denmark, with England attacking from right to left - Opta

No outball

While under the cosh, there was a moment when Bukaya Saka had the chance to break but his counterattack was very smartly halted by a tactical foul from a Dane. England needed to find their pacy attackers when they got on the ball, which is down to getting accurate passes out of defence and midfield once possession is won. Another issue to solve is Kane. He is very good at holding up the ball, but needs to be further forward to give England that ‘out’.

Just before Alexander-Arnold came off he went on a powerful run through the middle and these counter-attacks relieved the pressure and put England back on top in the second half.

Not changing it up

Southgate waited until the 54th minute before making changes and could have easily started making subs at half-time. He has faith in his 4-2-3-1 system but Conor Gallagher, his first replacement, is a different type of player to Alexander-Arnold, adding plenty of energy but losing the range of passing of the Liverpool midfielder. Some on the bench such as Eberechi Eze or Anthony Gordon could have been given a chance – just a change of legs to ask the Danes a different question.


The 16 minutes in which England lost control against Denmark

Within moments of the game resuming after Kane’s goal we see a tactical theme that caused England problems throughout the half. Denmark’s 5-4-1 defensive shape flipped to a 3-2-5 in attack when their wing-backs Victor Kristiansen and Joakim Maehle pushed forward. That front five stretched the pitch and outnumbered England’s usual back four.

In reaction, Rice drops on to Denmark forward Jonas Wind to match their forward five. Kieran Trippier is reluctant to jump out to Maehle, which could have sparked Marc Guehi to jump to Wind and preserve England’s shape. The result is a crater of space in midfield.

England vs Denmark, Euro 2024
England vs Denmark, Euro 2024

Denmark looked to turn England around with long balls, from where they could pen Southgate’s side in. A theme of England’s opening two games is that when they are pushed back, they stay back. In the example pictured below, every England player bar Bellingham is camped in and around their own penalty area. Diligent defensive work to be sure, and in the Premier League we see high pressing teams crunch behind the ball when the time is right, but it made it difficult for England to escape.

When Bukayo Saka hammers the ball clear, England have nobody contesting the first ball or even the second. It is simple for Denmark to recycle possession at start another attack. Southgate decided against picking one of England’s best counter-attacking runners in Marcus Rashford, but does have Anthony Gordon and Ollie Watkins as options to fulfil this role. Watkins was introduced in the second half. Tired legs after a long seasons makes springing attacks from deep even harder.

England vs Denmark, Euro 2024
England vs Denmark, Euro 2024

England’s distances without the ball were also far too big from front to back. Again and again, Rice and Alexander-Arnold were not able or not in position to lay a glove on Denmark’s midfielders. In the below example, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (hardly Andres Iniesta) was able to receive the ball from a central defender and turn under no pressure. Rice stands with his arms outstretched, his exasperation clear for all to see. England were too concerned by what might be happening over their shoulder to step in.

England vs Denmark, Euro 2024
England vs Denmark, Euro 2024

England also had their share of problems in possession, with Denmark the more effective pressing team. In the example below, Pickford had options to play out through Marc Guehi and Kieran Trippier or the riskier pass into Rice. Instead he opts to go long towards Kane. Nothing wrong with that per se, but England are not set up to compete for the second ball.

England vs Denmark, Euro 2024
England vs Denmark, Euro 2024

After Janik Vestergaard wins the header in front of an unsupported Kane, Bellingham is the only England player vaguely in the picture. There are merits to playing short and long. What a team must not do is set up to play short and then go long, because the unit will be stretched and the ball will come straight back.

England vs Denmark, Euro 2024
England vs Denmark, Euro 2024

Christian Eriksen can control, turn and play without an England player near him. This is a player who struggled to cope with the intensity of Premier League football last season. With this kind of space he could play until he is 50.

England vs Denmark, Euro 2024
England vs Denmark, Euro 2024

This example below shows why England had problems both winning the ball back off Denmark and springing from their deep defensive shape. Rice and Alexander-Arnold are standing on the toes of centre-backs John Stones and Marc Guehi. Wide players Foden and Saka are all the way back in defensive positions. England’s defence was a pre-tournament concern but does it really require this degree of protection?

England vs Denmark, Euro 2024
England vs Denmark, Euro 2024

Rice was one of the best players in the Premier League last season, but he struggled against Denmark. The Arsenal man looked zapped of his usual drive and energy on a boggy pitch. When players tire, they start to drop deeper. In a small but telling action, Rice here is pulling his shorts up, urging himself to find another gear. It is a sign of frustration.

England vs Denmark, Euro 2024
England vs Denmark, Euro 2024

Rice is a superb reader of opposition passes and is usually sharp to intercept, but in this passage his legs looked heavy and was bypassed by a simple sequence of Denmark passing. Rice would normally be all over these straight passes played into central areas.

England vs Denmark, Euro 2024
England vs Denmark, Euro 2024

Saka was England’s main outlet and was involved in England’s one decent move of this miserable 16 minutes, driving inside and winning a free-kick. England looked to find Saka in isolation against Kristiansen, but this move shows that Denmark always had the spare man with their back five against England’s front four. England needed to be bolder and use a front five or even a front six to stress Denmark’s defence. Do England need six behind the ball? A natural left-back such as Luke Shaw would surely be pushed on.

England vs Denmark Euro 2024
England vs Denmark Euro 2024

In the build-up to Denmark’s goal, Kane drops to receive a throw-in deep in his own half, a job he could have left to left-winger Foden. Kane is excellent at spreading play from right to left with his right foot, but it was never really on here with Bellingham ahead of the ball.

England vs Denmark, Euro 2024
England vs Denmark, Euro 2024

England have lost possession cheaply and are therefore not structured correctly to apply pressure on the Denmark player. You may be spotting a theme by now. For all England’s problems, Hjulmand’s finish was un-saveable, and eerily similar to Aurélien Tchouaméni’s for France against England in the 2022 World Cup quarter-final in Qatar.