This game marked the meeting between the highest scorers and the best defence in the Danish Superliga. Fleming Pedersen’s Nordsjælland were unbeaten in their last six league games before this fixture. Meanwhile, the league leaders, Midtjylland, managed by Brian Priske, came from a 1-0 home defeat to AC Horsens in what was the first game-week since the Covid-19 shutdown.
Nordsjælland have been juggling between 4-3-3 and a 3-4-3 as their main formations this season. In this game, they lined up in their 3-4-3. Mikkel Damsgaard, who was dropped to the bench last week at Silkeborg, was back in the starting eleven. He replaced Oliver Antman as the central attacker in the front three.
Midtjylland changed from their favoured 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3 after last weekend’s surprise loss at home. Brian Priske made only one change to the teamsheet, with Jens Cajuste replacing Mikael Anderson. Anders Dreyer who has figured in the number 10-role for most of this season moved out on the right side of the attack. Jens Cajuste partnered up with Frank Onyeka and Evander to make it a midfield trio for Midtjylland.
In the game, Nordsjælland’s structure was slightly different from the line-ups forecasted. Mohammed Kudus found himself playing a more central role. He alternated between playing as a central striker and a number ten. Most of his time, however, was spent deeper as a number ten, while Damsgaard and Sulemana tended to drift out wide on the left.
Midtjylland’s high press
Starting the analysis of Midtjylland’s defensive game, it could be seen from the outset that the team were trying to make life harder for the opposition.
Midtjylland tried blocking their opponent’s build-up from the back with a high press starting immediately when the home team tried to progress the ball forward from one of the three centre-backs. They did this by allowing Cajuste and Evander to step forward from their midfield-roles, while Frank Onyeka was holding – balancing the midfield. This made it even numbers with Nordsjælland’s defence, making options limited for the hosts trying to advance further up the field.
This high pressing was consistent throughout the first half, in effect blocking or limiting Nordsjælland’s options playing out from the back. The effect of this was a frequent loss of possession in dangerous areas and forced them to seek more directly with a long ball. With the aerial presence of Midtjylland’s centre-back duo Sviatchenko and Scholz, this was a win-win situation for Priske’s side.
The league’s best defence
Defensively, we could see Midtjylland sticking to their formation, defending compactly in a 4-3-3. They did this short distances between the lines, narrowness in midfield, and a high line. This formula has worked wonders for “The Wolves” this season, having astonishingly only conceded 14 goals in the 25 games prior to this fixture.
This compact defensive structure caused a lack of options for Nordsjælland and when in moving forward. This resulted in the opponent averaging 0.0 xG throughout the first half. Midtjylland had an extra man in midfield compared to Nordsjælland’s 3-4-3. This was achieved through Frank Onyeka taking out the centre forward dropping deep to receive the ball.
Midtjylland looked rock solid when defending inside their own half, consistently overloading the ball side. As seen in the picture below Nordsjælland’s midfield duo found it hard to pick out a progressive pass when up against a Midtjylland side in defensive balance.
Midtjylland find joy wide
When in control of the ball, Midtjylland used their numerical advantage in midfield to progress. As illustrated in the picture beneath, a trio in midfield meant they could drop into pockets between Nordsjælland’s first line of defence. Jens Cajuste and Evander Ferreira did this on numerous occasions before using their natural ability to drive forward with the ball at their feet. In the first half Nordsjælland averaged 0.51 attacks per minute.
When in attack they tended to seek Nordsjælland’s wide defensive channels. In effect, this allowed wingers Anders Dreyer and Awer Mabil to utilise their pace in one-to-one situations with the opponent’s wide centre-backs. As seen below, this occurred in the leadup to the match-winning goal.
A lofted ball from Schulz left wide centre-back Ulrik Yttergård Jensen in a one-on-one with Anders Dreyer. The left midfielder Diomande was too far behind to recover. Dreyer then got the time and space to pick out the physically gifted Sory Kaba. He found the bottom left corner with a well-placed volley.
Nordsjælland’s struggle to progress
Fleming Pedersen’s Nordsjælland side are the top scorers in the Danish Superligaen this season, but up against the best defence in the league, they found it hard to progress when building from the back. Nordsjælland found it hard to breach the tactical set-up of Midtjylland, managing only 0.27 xG in the game.
Nordsjælland has been known for overloading the centre of the field this season, despite having a midfield two. They tend to do this through the central centre-back, Abdul Mumin. Mumin will step forward whilst the centre forward drops short to create four in the middle. Midtjylland’s extremely high press from the outset made it hard for Nordsjælland to progress past their first line of defence and get into their normal attacking pattern.
This meant that Nordsjælland were forced to pass backwards and sideways often, especially between the three centre backs. They rarely moved the ball quickly enough to disrupt their opponent’s shape. This would result in them wasting possession often. 59% of ball-possession and only two goal attempts tell a story about a team with possession but no penetration.
Going wide without success
As a consequence of Midtjylland’s overload in the central area, Nordsjælland tried to use their wide midfielders to progress. They would drop deeper and function as wide options for the centre-backs when building an attack from the back. When managing to progress, the lack of opposite movement from the front trio became evident. In total, only 59% of their progressive passes were successful, compared to Midtjylland’s 76% accuracy.
As seen in the photo above with Mads Thychosen on the right side, Damgaard tended to stay close to either Kudus or Sulemana. This led to Midtjylland having an easy task of picking them up and controlling the large offensive area left empty by Nordsjælland.
Going forward Nordsjælland tried to exploit the opponent’s high line by attempting through channel balls in the area between the centre and full-backs. The lack of quality in delivery combined with bad timing on the runs in behind made it easy for FC Midtjylland to take the sting out of these attempts.
Struggling to breach through the compact 4-3-3 of Midtjylland, Nordsjælland tended to seek Kamal-Deen Sulemana, especially in the first half. Sulemana is one of the most promising prospects in Danish football and possesses both excellent technical abilities and raw pace. Still, Nordsjælland kept feeding him the ball in isolated situations out wide, hoping he would provide the needed spark of magic. Only 44% of his attempted dribbles in this game were successful.
This halted “The Wild Tigers” rhythm in the final third of the pitch. More often than not, it led to a loss of possession or the ball going out of play.
The second half of this fixture looked more like a pre-season friendly than a competitive fixture between two of the finest teams in the league. Midtjylland were happy to sit in and exploit gaps in Nordsjælland’s defensive line on the break. Meanwhile, Nordsjælland kept struggling to find a way to produce their normal attacking pattern and rhythm.
After 81 minutes of play, Midtjylland once again caught the opponent off balance with a lofted ball from right-back Joel Andersson into the wide channel. Once again Nordsjælland’s wide centre-backs were put in an isolated one-on-one situation, this time it was sub Mikkel Andersen. Ulrik Yttergård Jensen was sent off, receiving his second yellow card for pulling down the Midtjylland winger. After the sending off Nordsjælland adjusted their formation pivoting to a 5-3-1.
The low tempo of the game continued in the same fashion for the rest of the half. Midtjylland having dominated from the outset carried on in their stride, used their numerical advantage. As for Nordsjælland, they came closer to conceding another than to scoring one. They continued being vulnerable for counterattacks when moving forward. Midtjylland could’ve added a second, three minutes into added time, as seen in the picture below. A poor touch from Andersen helped the isolated Abdul Mumin to stop the potential goal-scoring chance.
This was almost a no-contest match for FC Midtjylland. The Europa League hopefuls, who once faced Man United, but lost to Rangers in qualifying this year, outclassed Nordsjælland both tactically and in their one-on-one battles all over the pitch. This victory is another step towards Champions League qualifying.
Nordsjælland will be disappointed with that display after a fine run of form. The Wild Tigers will hope to bounce back when the reigning champions FC Copenhagen pay them a visit at Right to Dream Park for the first game of the playoff-campaign.