The Big Six: The Key Players Battling It Out for a Euro 2020 Final Place
Here’s the situation: England have made it to consecutive semi-finals at major international tournaments following their 2018 World Cup appearance but will have vivid memories of three years ago when it ended in disappointment against Croatia.
Meanwhile Denmark are looking to replicate their fairytale Euro 92 win after progressing this far against all the odds after starting Euro 2020 with two defeats, compounded by the traumatic scenes that followed the collapse of Christen Eriksen in their opening game with Finland.
To borrow a classic football parlance, it’s up for grabs now, and we’ve picked out six key players from the two sides who could sway the result in favour of their team.
Joakim Maehle has been one of the most impressive protagonists in Denmark’s journey to the semi-finals, and England will be wary of the attack-minded defender at Wembley on Wednesday.
It’s been the tournament of the right-footed left wing-back, with Leonardo Spinazzola, Thorgan Hazard and Steven Zubar all impressing alongside Maehle. The 24-year-old Dane has been involved in a goal in each of Denmark’s last three matches with his outside-of-the-foot cross to assist Kasper Dolberg against the Czech Republic in the quarter-final a contender for pass of the tournament.
Maehle has caused major problems for all five sides he’s faced so far in the finals, his ability to run with the ball at his feet being a key threat.
No full-back or wing-back at Euro 2020 has carried the ball further overall (1279m) or upfield (977m), while his 105 ball carries is also the most. Furthermore, nine of these carries have ended in either a shot (6) or a chance created (3).
How can England cope with this threat? Do they switch back to a 3-4-3 formation as they did against Germany to counteract Denmark’s threat from full-back positions?
Denmark have a willing runner in Maehle, with UEFA statistics highlighting him the Danish player to have run the furthest (52.6km) at the finals. He’s also been the main target of Danish passes progressing at least 10 metres up the pitch at the tournament so far, with four of their five progressive pass combinations involving him. Stop him, and England are halfway to a victory. Fail to do so and it could be terminal for Gareth Southgate’s team.
As displayed in the graphic above, England will need to try and cut that supply to Maehle on Wednesday. Stopping prolific passer Pierre-Emile Højbjerg would be a good start, with 12 of his 13 progressive passes of 10m plus coming in the attacking half, but blocking quick counter attacks launched by both Kasper Schmeichel and Andreas Christensen to the left-back would damage the Danish attacking threat down that side of the pitch.
Joakim Maehle isn’t the only left-back setting Euro 2020 alight, with England’s Luke Shaw also having a phenomenal tournament.
It’s been a triumphant return to the international scene for Shaw, the Manchester United defender making his England ‘comeback’ in March, having played only 60 minutes for the Three Lions in a near six-year period before then. He didn’t play a single minute in England’s qualification campaign for these finals, but he’s certainly made up for lost time.
So far Shaw has created twice as many chances as any other England player (8) and has a higher expected assists total (1.6) than any defender bar Spain’s Jordi Alba (2.4).
It should come as no surprise that he’s in the form of his life, with his creative output in the Premier League for United this season being his best in a single season – something we highlighted back in May. He averaged a chance created every 37 minutes overall in the Premier League in 2020-21, with that average in open play at a chance created every 62 minutes – both season bests in a single top-flight campaign.
Shaw is not a player that opponents find easily to beat, either. He only been dribbled past by an opponent on three occasions in his last 15 appearances for club and country, with none of those coming in the five games for England.
Two of England’s four goals in the quarter-final were assisted by Shaw, bringing his tournament tally to three and equalling the best-ever by an England player at a European Championships alongside David Beckham in 2000. His crosses for Harry Kane and Harry Maguire’s goals in Rome wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Beckham highlights reel, had Beckham been left footed, and the accuracy of Shaw’s deliveries is particular important for a side who are so threatening aerially. Across the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020, England have scored half of their 20 goals from headers – the next most by a European nation across these two tournaments is four.
Denmark have been strong defensively from set-pieces so far at Euro 2020, conceding just six shots worth an xG of 0.43 from non-penalty set play situations (the fourth-lowest), but if any side could cause them problems from set-pieces it would surely be England.
Harry Kane’s performances in the group stage were rightly criticised, with the England captain looking consistently out of sorts. Much of this seemed to be down to how he was being deployed in the team, but the service that he was receiving from his teammates was also a factor.
Looking back, it did seem like attack was being sacrificed for defence to ensure group stage progression, but in the knockout stages this seems to have changed.
Kane is getting in much better positions to score, with his xG per 90 increasing from 0.51 to 0.86 without a difference in shot numbers (10 overall, five in the group, five in the knockouts) – and this doesn’t even include the excellent first half chance he had against Germany, where he failed to get a shot away. A consummate finisher, much of Kane’s improvement is down to improved service from his teammates.
In the three group stage games, Kane was invariably collecting frequent long deliveries, with the captain expected to hold the ball up, with the hope that his teammates would support him. No England player completed more passes to Kane that goalkeeper Jordan Pickford (7) in the group stages, with Kane only receiving six passes in the opposition box in 246 minutes.
However, in the games against Germany and Ukraine, Kane hasn’t been required to hold the ball up as much, with fewer long passes received and less work seen from him in the final third overall – this has allowed Kane to focus on being a threat to opposition defences in areas we know he can trouble them. Three of the five passes he’s received in the box in these two games have been converted into goals.
Kane will have confidence of beating Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel in this semi-final. Across his career, the England captain has scored 14 goals against Schmeichel in all competitions: more than against any other goalkeeper. The next best is Jordan Pickford (10) so England fans will hope that Kane doesn’t lose his bearings on Wednesday night.
England’s players should know the ability possessed by Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, but his performances at Euro 2020 have been at a higher level than he’s been able to consistently string together for Tottenham in the Premier League.
This is Højbjerg’s first international tournament after being cut from his nation’s 23-man squad at the 2018 World Cup, but he’s become a vital cog in the Danish midfield machine this year. So much has gone through Højbjerg in these finals, with the 25-year-old being the most frequent passer both overall (283) and in the opposition half (161) whilst also creating the most chances for his teammates (10) and winning possession back for the Danes more than anyone else (41). Of his total successful passes, they’ve totalled a net forward distance of 605m at the tournament, with an average of 2.1m per pass – the same as Marco Verratti and higher than players like Frenkie de Jong (1.6m) and N’Golo Kanté (1.5m). This net progressive distance is the same as it was in the 2020-21 Premier League for Spurs, but he’s arguably more integral to this Danish side with his positive passing.
As well as creating chances directly, Højbjerg has been key in the contribution to the creation of shots in open play for Denmark overall. He’s been involved in 34 unique shot-ending sequences in the tournament, behind only Spain’s wonderkid Pedri (35). No player has started the more open play sequences this tournament (65), showing his ability in regaining possession and recovering the ball for Denmark at Euro 2020, with a tournament-high 13 of these have ended in a shot.
England broke their all-time record of seven successive clean sheets when they beat Ukraine 4-0 on Saturday, with five of these coming in their Euro 2020 campaign so far. Admittedly, Harry Maguire joined this party late as he didn’t play until the final group game against the Czech Republic, but since that match we’ve seen a more impressive England when it comes to taking the ball out of defence and progressing forward.
Both Maguire’s forward pass distance per 90 (468m) and net forward distance per pass (5.2) are highs for England players to have played at least 200 minutes at the tournament, while he’s also the most adept at carrying the ball out of defence too. He tops all England players for carries per 90 (24), progressive carries per 90 (12) and carry distance per 90 (237m).
Of course, we also know the threat he poses aerially. He’s the player to have contested the most aerial duels at Euro 2020 without losing a single one (8) and none of the 97 players to be involved in 150+ aerials within the top five European leagues won a higher proportion than Maguire in 2020-21 (75%). We mentioned England’s aerial threat going forward earlier in this article, and Maguire is a big part of that, whether that’s being the man on the end of the set-piece crosses or a dummy runner to deflect focus.
Even so, England’s last meeting with Denmark back in October 2020 was one of Maguire’s lowest moments in a Three Lions’ shirt. They lost 1-0 with Maguire sent off within 31 minutes, with a high-profile Greek court case lingering over him. A Euro 2020 semi-final is a perfect chance to exorcise those ghosts.
This summer has been Raheem Sterling’s revenge against the naysayers that have consistently criticised him on and off the pitch. There’s little doubt that he’s been the star of England’s successful campaign so far and has been at the centre of everything good that has come from Gareth Southgate’s side.
Sterling has been involved in 22 goals in his last 21 appearances for England, scoring 15 goals and assisting seven more for teammates. He also leads the way for goal involvements for the Three Lions so far at Euro 2020 (4).
Despite only being 26 years old, Sterling is the most experienced member of England’s squad with 66 caps to his name since making his debut in November 2012. His England career hasn’t always been so successful, with only two goals in his first 45 caps, but a brace in a 3-2 UEFA Nations League win away against Spain ended a three-year, 27-game barren sequence without a goal. Since then, it’s been a different story.
His assist for Harry Kane in the quarter-final against Ukraine was the sixth time that he’s set up a goal for the England captain – more than any other player for a teammate in the 21st century. Overall at Euro 2020, England players have made a total of 60 take-ons in the opposition half and 16 of these have been by Sterling (27%) and he has had half of England’s total of eight in the box.
Sterling is also England’s good luck charm. They’ve won all 13 matches that he’s scored in, which is the best 100% winning record of any player to score for the Three Lions. Gareth Southgate will be looking for more of that luck on Wednesday as he aims to keep England’s dream of ending a 55-year wait for an major honour alive.