The most important reason for England’s success has been their tenacious defense, but Southgate may have to adapt against Denmark.
The last time England faced Denmark at Wembley was in a Nations League fixture in October when Harry Maguire stormed off the pitch after receiving his second yellow card just 31 minutes into the game. Five minutes later, his defensive teammate Kyle Walker and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford were involved in a terrible scuffle inside the box with a Denmark player, which resulted in a penalty, which proved to be the game-winning moment. Reece James, the full-back, barged towards the referee after the final whistle and received a red card.
After his fabled and juicy exploits in Greece, Maguire was the media villain, right-back Kieran Trippier had to clear his reputation of betting accusations, and Tammy Abraham, Ben Chilwell, and Jadon Sancho were busy churning out page-three-worthy things. The aforementioned encounter was viewed as confirmation of England’s indiscipline, particularly among their defenders and goalkeepers, rather than a forecast. Pickford had been dubbed the “bone-collector” just a month before after knocking down Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk with a heinous challenge that kept the Dutchman out for the whole season.
Even though it was a meaningless game, the media criticism was fairly harsh after England’s defeat. Maguire once said, “It’s a night etched in my mind.” But it’s a night worth decoding and meditating on in order to see how far England, and particularly the criminals of that night, have progressed since then.
Maguire has not only put the past behind him but has evolved into an exceptional leader and unwavering rock at the back, his proclivity for self-destruction a distant memory from his petulant childhood. Walker’s rough edges have been smoothed down, and he now combines playmaking instincts with defensive tenacity. Trippier has improved his passing, refined his crossing, and honed his ability to regain the ball. Pickford has figured out how to channel his rage into anything other than flipping his opponents. His reflexes were never questioned; now he’s being praised for his demeanor and ability to inspire. His saves against Germany in the Round of 16 were crucial in keeping England afloat at comparable periods.
England’s defense is quickly establishing itself as one of the best in the competition. It’s no small achievement to go 400 minutes without allowing a goal — and it’s perhaps the most compelling reason for their run to the semifinals. While their forwards have gotten a lot of attention and acclaim leading up to and during the tournament, it’s England’s unwavering defensive solidity that has propelled them to the last four and made them one of the tournament favorites.