Reaping the rewards of a youthful strategy
A new brand of football is taking the world by storm, and Denmark has been playing catch-up. The last two decades has seen it gradually move away from its favoured 4-4-2 formation, and Richard Møller Nielsen’s ‘Give it back to Schmeichel’ tactics of 1992, leaving it in a good position to follow the lead of the Spanish national side and Barcelona, and embrace their tika-taka philosophy.
At a youth level, technical ability is now lauded above a crunching tackle, as football is treated more like a science that involves meticulous preparation and planning. Five years ago national team coach Morten Olsen, who last month had his contract extended until the 2014 World Cup, announced wholesale changes to the way the game is coached, at both senior and youth levels. He outlined plans to adapt training – from the bottom all the way to the top – to a style of play influenced by tika-taka and the total football played by the Dutch national team in the 1970s.
Olsen’s charges had just missed out on a place at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, slumping to number 38 in the world (their lowest position since the rankings began in 1992), and would go on to fail miserably in their bid to qualify for Euro 2008, finishing fourth behind Spain, Sweden and minnows Northern Ireland.
Thomas Frank, the coach of the under-16 and under-17 national youth teams, has worked closely with Olsen implementing the strategy and is optimistic about the future. “Football is a huge part of Danish culture, and a successful national team breeds positivity,” he said. “The new strategy is in place but we have only touched the tip of the iceberg so far. Over the next five years we should start to see a real improvement.”
By the time the 2018 World Cup comes along in Russia, Frank is optimistic that Denmark will be able to compete with the best nations in the world. “Luck and timing are of course important, but we have a lot of good players; with the strategy pushing forward, there is a good possibility of success,” he continued.
“It is also important not to be too strict and to be able to adjust. For a small country we are a big footballing nation and we should think as a big nation. It is important to get results and aid development and compete with the best in Europe. We must be aware of every young player in the country and get the most from our resources – we have the ability to remain in Europe’s top ten. Germany, Holland, Spain and Switzerland have the best youth programmes and we want to match them.”
Frank has already begun to see results. His under-17s side won all three of their group stage games at the European championships this year in Serbia before losing to Germany in the semis. They played some brilliant attacking football inspired by Ajax’s Viktor Fischer and FCK’s Kenneth Zohore – a performance that earnt them a place at the U17 World Cup a month later in Mexico. While they only managed one point from their ‘group of death’, they still impressed in their losses to Brazil and Ivory Coast in a tournament played in sweltering conditions for which they only had one month to properly prepare for.
“Mental energy was lacking at the World Cup,” said Frank. “I still believe now that we are in the top eight in the world, but we didn’t prove it. It shows how tough it was when Holland also only gathered one point from their group games, having won the under-17s Euros a month earlier, brushing aside everyone.”
Frank has a good record as the coach of the under-17s, winning 35 of his 60 games in charge, and he has since taken his under-16 team to play two friendlies in Israel where Morten Wieghorst’s under-21 side will hope to be competing at the 2013 European Championships – the first under-21 Euros to involve 16 teams. They are currently well placed to qualify, three points behind group leaders Serbia with a game in hand.
Israel certainly seems a far cry from a friendly with neighbouring Sweden, but Frank states the importance of these fixtures for the future development of these players: “It is very important to see different football cultures and play in different environments where heat and thin air can be a factor.”
In 2004 FC Midtjylland became the first Danish club to set up a youth academy. It used a model developed by the French club Nantes for youngsters playing from the under-16 level to the under-19 level. Frank is a huge fan of this academy. “FC Midtjylland has certainly raised the bar and is doing very well for the country. Their academy is one of a kind in Denmark,” he said. AS Roma and national team defender Simon Kjaer is the most notable graduate of the system so far.
Another master plan created by the DBU is the recent formation of an under-21 domestic league.
“This is excellent for 17, 18 and 19-year-olds to compete in,” said Frank. “That is the idea behind the formation of the league.”
However, Frank still insists that the best players should go abroad as the Danish league does not have enough money to compete with the best in Europe. “Players should definitely go abroad to learn their trade if they can. Looking at the likes of Christian Eriksen, Viktor Fischer and Nicolai Boilesen at Ajax, they are learning far more playing with better players.”
Nevertheless, whilst 26 June 1992 remains Denmark’s finest hour, there could be a new date in the future, forever embedded in Danish history. Whilst many might consider this a fairytale worthy of Hans Christian Andersen, Morten Olsen and his staff are all working hard to put their big ideas into practice.