FC Nordsjælland have developed a number of players who have since moved onto big clubs in top-five European leagues. Rahul Iyer looks at another who will make the step up, 19-year-old Mikkel Damsgaard.
Mikkel Damsgaard's CAREER IN REVIEW
Scandinavian football is on the rise. For a region that has not traditionally housed footballing superpowers, the emergence of top-quality talent from the newest generation is an encouraging sign for the future.
Domestic football in these countries has played a huge part in producing this new generation. In Denmark, one club in particular, FC Nordsjælland, is taking immense pride in the project it is building. The club aims to eventually field a full squad of home-grown players (half of whom will likely be from Africa), and have already produced the likes of Emre Mor, Andreas Skov Olsen, Mathias Jensen and Stanislav Lobotka, among others. Today, we take a look at the latest gem from their academy: 19-year-old Mikkel Damsgaard.
Damsgaard, however, will not be part of the envisioned home-grown side, having agreed a €6.5 million move to Serie A side Sampdoria in February, to be completed at the end of the season. Incidentally, this makes him the second-most expensive purchase from the Danish side, behind Mor. But what did the Italian side see in Damsgaard to prompt the transfer?
Mikkel Damsgaard's Style of Play
Across his four seasons of competitive football (one youth and three senior), Damsgaard has played in central midfield, on the left wing, as a number ten, and even up front, logging over 1,500 minutes in each position. In 2016/17, he played most of his minutes as an attacking midfielder, while the next his playing time was split fairly evenly between midfield and striker. In 2018/19, he was shifted back into midfield and this season so far, 1,351 of his 2,435 minutes have seen him operate on the left wing.
Interestingly, this variation in playing positions is matched by stark differences in the attacking output he provides from each.
The blue bars here signify his expected goal involvement per 90 minutes, while the orange bars show the actual goal involvement per 90. When playing in midfield and up front, he performs more or less as expected. Interestingly, he underperforms his xG when playing as a ten, but more or less balances it with overperformance when deployed out wide. Overall, it means his output is solidly backed up by underlying numbers, with 49 goal contributions from 49.63 expected involvements.
Damsgaard has thrived out wide this season, racking up nine goals and three assists (plus one from midfield) so far. While his game is far more nuanced than that of a classic winger, or even the more modern inside forward, for the purpose of comparison it seems fair to class him as a winger/wide forward.
Proceeding as such, comparing him in chance creation and shooting to wingers in Europe’s top-five leagues aged under 23 who have played over 1,000 minutes this season throws up some promising figures.
Creation-wise, Damsgaard is more of a volume player, with his 1.76 shot assists per 90 putting him in the top 12% of the aforementioned group. However, he tends to lack quality with the chances he creates, with each averaging an xG value of just 0.09.
This suggests that with the ball he is given the license to play the final pass, irrespective of whether it creates a good chance or a bad one, taking risks and looking to unlock the opposition defence at every opportunity. More on this later.
When it comes to shooting, however, Damsgaard puts up some extremely impressive numbers. Ranking in the 72nd percentile for shot volume and in the 88th percentile for shot quality, he is up there with some of the best when it comes to getting on the end of chances.
For context, a few of the names in his immediate vicinity on the above chart are Kingsley Coman, Gabriel Martinelli, Rodrygo and Mikel Oyarzabal, which is not bad company at all. His ability to consistently get into good goal-scoring positions is tremendously useful for a winger in today’s game.
Of course, these numbers must be taken with a pinch of salt, given the difference in quality between the Danish Superliga and the top-five leagues. As a result, we may see a slight dip in his performance for a year or two, but the fact that Damsgaard has shown such a high bar at such a young age bodes well for the future.
While statistics are always useful, they don’t always provide us with the full picture. Live, and/or video evaluation does and will always remain an integral part of the scouting process. This is particularly true in Damsgaard’s case, as his biggest strength is difficult to quantify on a statistical sheet – that being his off-the-ball movement, which will be illustrated with the help of the following images.
Here, Damsgaard (highlighted in yellow) has picked up the ball in midfield and is looking to build an attack. He plays the pass towards the centre circle, where the striker is dropping deep to receive it. This gives him the opportunity to make a smart movement to collect the return pass and for Nordsjælland to spring forward.
In most cases, players try to combine here by bursting between the two closest players (where Damsgaard is looking), but that would draw attention from both those players, keeping them on their toes.
Instead, he lulls his opponents into a false sense of security. Upon playing the pass, he then accelerates (the red arrow) and takes the long way around his marker, leaving him unsighted and also creating a good amount of separation from the chasing player. This movement, combined with the striker dropping off, leads to the following picture:
From here, with space, time and movement ahead of him, Damsgaard is left with the simple task of threading the ball between the defenders and exploiting their lack of organisation, which he does to perfection, resulting in a goal for his side.
This type of combination play is a feature of Damsgaard’s game, whether he is in midfield or higher up the pitch. The following pair of images will showcase more of his intelligent movement, this time further up the field and in a far more constricted area.
In this case, Nordsjælland are on the attack against a Midtjylland side with nine outfield players defending their penalty area. In such a scenario, space is hard to come by, but Damsgaard manufactures room brilliantly here.
As team-mate Jonathan Amon (on the ball) drives forward, Damsgaard (highlighted in blue) knows he needs to be available as a passing option. So, he moves, almost lazily, across the front of the closest defender. The reason for going across the front rather than behind his man as he did previously, is two-fold:
Firstly, given the speed at which Amon is moving, time is of the essence. The extra second he would take to go around his opponent could result in Amon running into a cul-de-sac and the move breaking down. Secondly, he knows he can move across the front without being followed, as the man closest to him needs to remain in position – to do otherwise would be to risk giving Amon an open dribbling lane.
The result of the movement is the picture above. Damsgaard has now found a pocket of space to operate in and as a result of the defenders watching the ball, Amon makes a run in behind. Damsgaard is then able to play the pass with his first touch, with the perfect weight and in the perfect direction for his team-mate to finish.
Another crucial aspect of Damsgaard’s game is his playmaking ability from deep, which often allows Nordsjælland to break down teams that like to sit and be reactive. For example, in the situation shown above, Nordsjælland’s opponents, Esbjerg fB, have set up in a low block, inviting them forward. Staying vertically compact here helps make sure that there is limited room between the lines for players like Damsgaard to operate.
As a result, he drops deeper to find space, collecting the pass from left-back Kamal Deen Sulemana, who, after releasing the ball, cuts inside, trying to get behind the defence. Being under pressure and with minimal back lift, Damsgaard lofts the ball over the top, taking the entire opposition team out of the game in a mesmerising display of technique and vision. On another day, this would have been a great assist, but Kamaldeen ends up miscontrolling the pass.
So far, we’ve seen examples of Damsgaard manoeuvring himself into little pockets of space to play one-twos and link up with team-mates, which explains why he produces such a high volume of shot creation. But his shooting numbers are, by far, the more impressive aspect of his attacking contribution. So how do those come about?
In the image above, with the ball on the right flank, there is a chance for Nordsjælland to create a crossing opportunity. Damsgaard is currently on the edge of the box, seemingly uninterested, despite there being space ahead of him. At first, it looks like an error in judgment; in fact, the eventual timing of his run is perfect.
Right now, if Damsgaard moves into the box, he will end up alerting the opposition centre-back to his presence, allowing him to subsequently organise his defenders. As it is, he is focusing on the ball and has not noticed the attacker yet. In addition, Damsgaard is waiting for his striker to make a run to the near post, which will create even more space for him to rush into.
Sure enough, as soon as the striker makes his move, Damsgaard is on his toes and bursting into the wide-open space in the area, allowing him to use the element of surprise, as well as his momentum, to force the ball into the back of the net.
Fitting Mikkel Damsgaard in at Sampdoria
While he may be listed as a winger, Damsgaard does operate in fairly central areas, preferring to carry the ball when out wide rather than get involved in the play. He would work well as the left winger in a 4-3-3, with a defensively minded midfielder behind him and an energetic two-way full-back providing overlaps on the flank.
He could also feasibly play the number ten role in a 4-2-3-1, as long as his side is able to put players around him who will constantly be on the move, either providing him with passing options or creating space for him to drive into. As long as he is not held back by rigid tactical instructions, and allowed to take risks and occasionally fail, he should thrive.
Against significantly weaker sides, Damsgaard could even be used as the attacking half of a midfield double-pivot, provided that his partner is mobile enough to cover his lack of physicality and, consequently, defensive contribution. Of course, were he to put on more muscle and gain a few inches in height, he could develop into a world-class midfielder.
Essentially, his flexibility and potential make him an enviable player for any manager.
By no means is Damsgaard the finished product. A few deficiencies exist in his game, such as his tendency to dive rather rashly into tackles. But all in all, his strengths are exciting and what is lacking can easily be improved.
At Sampdoria, he will be able to continue his development out of the spotlight and relatively unfettered by a large transfer fee, which could make him a dangerous prospect for opposition teams in the future. Already capped by the Danish national team at under-18, under-19 and under-20 level, he could also make the step up to the senior team sooner rather than later.
His technical proficiency, coupled with the increase in tactical awareness which should naturally arise from the time he is set to spend in Serie A, could make him a very interesting prospect to bigger, better clubs in the future. Watch this space.