Pernille Harder: Denmark’s crown jewel can make life tough for England

Denmark are a bit of a conundrum. England’s next opponents in Group D have the quality to cause problems, having competed well at European level. They are, however, yet to make their mark on the world stage.

This is their first appearance in a World Cup in 16 years. Four years ago they missed out partly because the team forfeited a qualifier against Sweden in a pay dispute with their federation. It was a courageous move but means many of the players who have shone at European Championships in recent years – reaching the semi-finals in 2013 and finishing as runners-up in 2017 – have, until now, never featured at this level. Last year’s Euros were a disappointment for Denmark, who dropped out at the group stage in England.

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It feels surprising that Pernille Harder is one of the many making their World Cup debuts this tournament, at 30 years old. She is the jewel in the Danish crown and arguably one of the best players in the women’s game. When she signed for Chelsea in the summer of 2020, the fee set the transfer record and she has been named Uefa Player of the Year on two occasions.

For Lars Søndergaard’s Denmark she is the focal point of the attack. With 142 caps and 70 goals, Harder is the player who has the presence, versatility and experience to cause problems for any opposition. Best utilised driving forward from midfield, her movement and ability to find space and break the defensive line with ease have caught the eye on the domestic scene. Off the ball, her movement and energy in the press are often a starting point for the way Denmark attack.

The Lionesses will be wary of her threats, with many of the players conscious of the dangers she poses from her time in England. “Pernille’s strengths are dribbling with the ball, especially in attack,” Lucy Bronze said. “She’s a hard worker as well but probably why she’s playing higher up is because she has quality on the ball that not many others possess. In the past few years, she’s been one of the best players in the world, not just at Chelsea but at Wolfsburg and Denmark.”

As alluded to by Bronze, Søndergaard can employ his star player further forward. This can lead to some disconnect against a strong defensive unit. This was particularly evident in the first half of Denmark’s opening victory over China when Harder, as the target striker, struggled to find her way into the game, often winning the ball back isolated from her teammates. The arrival of Signe Bruun during the second half improved matters, allowing her to drop deeper and affect the play in the pocket just behind the striker.

Although Harder brings world-class quality, Sarina Wiegman’s side will be wary of focusing on one player. Denmark have become one of the key sources of talent development in recent years, with youngsters coming through that possess the potential to make it to the top.

The 20-year-old midfielder Kathrine Kühl is one such player who has garnered plenty of interest. A traditional No 8, she has the technical capability and work rate to support Harder and link defence to attack. Jonas Eidevall, her manager at Arsenal, told the BBC that she was “probably the most technically proficient player I’ve seen at that age. She’s so good on the ball which means that she can do a lot of things. She can protect the ball; she can be comfortable with the ball; she has great pressing. So, she really ticks a lot of boxes in that position.”

Alongside her plays Everton’s Karen Holmgaard, another who has caught the eye. The 24-year-old sits in midfield, protecting the backline but with the versatility and vision to transition defence to attack. The return to fitness of Nicoline Sørensen, also at Everton, provides a threat on the flank.

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England will take confidence from Denmark’s struggle to create against China. In a scrappy affair, an 89th-minute header from the substitute Amalie Vangsgaard decided the game. Although Denmark controlled possession and chances, they managed only two shots on target, pointing to a lack of clinical edge.

On paper, Denmark pose the strongest threat to England in the group. They will drop deep and be defensively organised, forcing the Lionesses to break them down, and will be ready to pick them off when chances arise. This tournament may be a little too soon in the development of the young players coming through but with Harder in their ranks anything is possible.

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