How Leeds United star Kalvin Phillips can help England escape trap set by 'very intense' Denmark duo Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Thomas Delaney
Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips will find himself right at the heart of a key battle when England take on Denmark for a place in the Euro 2020 final.
A Danish midfield stripped so traumatically of the attacking talents of Christian Eriksen will be out to bring defensive intensity and pressure to the Three Lions, in a similar way to what Phillips and his Whites team-mates have become known for since Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival at Elland Road.
One half of the Danish midfield pairing expected to take to the pitch at Wembley in the semi-final is familiar to Phillips.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg played in both Tottenham Hotspur’s 3-0 win over Leeds and their 3-1 defeat at Elland Road, although his fellow 25-year-old Phillips only came on for the final few minutes of that game as he recovered from a minor injury.
Hojbjerg partners Borussia Dortmund man Thomas Delaney, who headed Denmark in front against Czech Republic in the quarter-finals, in Kasper Hjulmand’s midfield.
Their partnership has worked well, notably against Belgium, albeit in defeat. It was Hojbjerg’s intense pressing that resulted directly in the opening goal of the game.
“The Denmark midfield is a very intense one for a two man midfield,” said Stephen Hickingbotham, head of analysis for The Scouted Hub, whose area of expertise is Danish football.
“Particularly against Belgium they were able to overwhelm their opponents with an aggressive counter press.
“While they obviously miss Christian Eriksen’s creativity and attacking mindset, they’re strong on the ball as well as off it. Højbjerg typically plays closer to the centre of the pitch as the true ‘defensive midfielder’, but Delaney regularly drifts into higher positions, attacking the left-half space in possession.
“Both midfielders like to pass and carry the ball forwards although they lack the cuteness on the ball that an attacking midfielder would offer.”
Although England eventually coasted to victory over Ukraine in their quarter-final tie, Hickingbotham spotted an issue the Danes will be out to exploit.
“The Danish midfield will make it hard for England to play out of defence and they could fall into a similar trap as they did at times against the Ukraine, although the Danes can execute it more effectively,” he said.
“What I mean by this, is the difficulty England had playing the ball out of defence due to the lack of a forward pass option to Mason Mount.
“At times Mount was forced into a deeper position to try and get on the ball, which could happen under the Danish pressure and because of Højbjerg’s ability to track his man, leaving England with no option to progress the ball centrally.”
This is where Phillips’ ability to escape attention and find space in which to get his team playing forward, as so often seen when Leeds play, could be instrumental for his country.
Freed of the shackles of a potential suspension thanks to his earlier yellow card being wiped out ahead of the semi-final, he will also be able to dish out the exact-same treatment that Denmark want to give their hosts, with even more intensity.
Data site Fbref.com lists the Whites midfielder as second in the entire tournament for the number of times he has pressurised a player receiving, carrying or releasing the ball . His tally is more than Hojbjerg and Delaney have managed between them. As a team, England sit third at Euro 2021 for pressures  well clear of Denmark in 16th . But the Danes did produce their tournament-best against Czech Republic in the quarter-finals with 150 pressures.
“The midfield battle will likely be decided by England’s ability to avoid being trapped on the edge of their box, while Denmark will have to avoid losing their intensity and quality while being outnumbered in the middle of the park,” said Hickingbotham.
“But England can dominate the game with Denmark’s own medicine - defensive intensity and forward passing.”
The game might not be won or lost in the central midfield battle, given the wealth of talent elsewhere in both teams.
England will hope to see more of the Harry Kane who scored two and very nearly helped himself to a quarter-final hat-trick against Ukraine and once again look to in-form Raheem Sterling for inspiration, while Denmark will seek joy out wide through wing-back Joakim Maehle and 21-year-old winger Mikkel Damsgaard.
But the Danes’ midfield pairing could play a vital role in winning possession and supplying their creative attackers with sufficient time on the ball deep in the England half to do damage, so Phillips and Declan Rice will need to fight for control.
If the Leeds man and his West Ham United counterpart can achieve dominance, Gareth Southgate’s forwards will yet again be given a platform to express themselves, with a major tournament final the potential reward.