PROFILING HIS BEST ATTRIBUTES ASSESSING HIS FUTURE ANALYSING HIS STATS LEARNING ABOUT HIS STORY SO FAR
Mikkel Damsgaard's Euro 2020 Breakout
There’s a high chance you’ve heard the name Mikkel Damsgaard in the last couple of weeks. That’s pronounced Dams-go, by the way. You’ll need that.
Mikkel Damsgaard's Euro Breakout
There’s a high chance you’ve heard the name Mikkel Damsgaard in the last couple of weeks. That’s pronounced Dams-go, by the way. You’ll need that.
When Scouted Football profiled Damsgaard last June, he had just made the move from FC Nordsjælland, in his native Denmark to Sampdoria, in the Italian Serie A, who were going into the new season under the leadership of manager Claudio Ranieri.
At that point, there was excitement, if not high expectation for the transfer. The player had gotten his first big move, could develop under a highly respected coach outside the harsh spotlight of the mainstream media, and the club had secured itself a seemingly solid asset.
During his time in Genoa, Damsgaard has played in 35 league games for I Blucerchiati, registering 1,773 minutes in total, an average of 50.6 minutes per game. He has started 18 times, completing 90 minutes thrice, and played 17 times as a substitute. Clearly, his playing load is being managed carefully, as he adjusts to the step up in tactical quality and physicality from the Danish Superliga to Serie A.
For Ranieri’s side, similarly structured to his title-winning Leicester City team of 2016, Damsgaard has played on the left of what is usually a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 shape. Flexible enough to switch flanks, play in behind a centre-forward, drop deep in midfield or even lead the line at times, he provides the manager with multiple options to switch systems between games, as well as in-game.
An output of two goals and four assists looks unimpressive at first, but adjusting for the number of minutes Damsgaard has played, he averages a goal contribution roughly every three games, which is not bad at all for a 20-year-old getting his first taste of top-level football in a foreign country, and having to essay a variety of roles. (For a more detailed breakdown of his league season, this piece by Danny Corcoran is an excellent read.)
But much of this is old hat. Damsgaard’s positional versatility and skill on the ball were quite prominent during his time at Nordsjælland. In a young player especially, individual development is a crucial parameter for judging success, perhaps more than tangible output.
A massive step that he has taken this year has come in the defensive department, showing a side to his game that did not shine through previously. While the numbers that he puts up are partly down to Ranieri’s system, Sampdoria’s position in the league hierarchy and Damsgaard’s relative freshness as a substitute, it bodes well that he is willing and able to put in the hard yards off the ball.
Before the start of the European Championships in June, not many would have taken notice of him. At 20 years old and with only three caps to his name (two of them in friendlies), it would have been easy to assume that the youngster was there to make up the numbers in an expanded 26-man squad.
Indeed, he was named on the bench for Denmark’s opener against Finland, and remained there for the duration of the game. However, following the tragic incident involving Christian Eriksen and his subsequent unavailability, Damsgaard has started all three games since then. Here is a detailed look at his performances in the tournament so far:
Denmark 1-2 Belgium
After suffering a 1-0 loss to Finland in their opening game, Denmark faced their toughest test of the group stage as tournament heavyweights Belgium visited Copenhagen. Denmark head coach Kasper Hjulmand lined the side up in a 3-4-3 shape, matching their opponents’ and deviating from the 4-3-3 used in the tournament opener.
Damsgaard started on the left side of the front three, with a significant number of his touches coming in the left half-space, the channel between the flank and the centre of the pitch.
This zone gave him the most freedom in terms of escaping from markers; often making his runs from out to in, Damsgaard was able to slip into gaps largely unnoticed, and caused confusion among the three players (wing-back Thomas Meunier, centre-back Toby Alderweireld and centre-midfielder Leander Dendoncker) responsible for patrolling the area defensively.
Part of the reason that this was able to work was down to the fact that Damsgaard has a natural tendency to drift in between the lines and make himself available for forward passes, like the one shown above. By coming inside and occupying a space between Belgium’s midfield and defensive lines, he creates a dilemma for each one of the aforementioned opponents.
If the wing-back narrows his position, he leaves acres of space on the wing. If the centre-back steps out of the defensive line, it becomes a footrace he is unlikely to win, and if the midfielder collapses backwards, he leaves a straightforward route for progression through the middle. This leaves Damsgaard with time and space to receive the ball, and though nothing much develops from this move, it is an effective and repeatable scenario, particularly if the opponent fails to adapt.
His good positioning notwithstanding, Damsgaard’s technique, particularly his close control in possession, is another effective tool for this Denmark team. Often receiving the ball on the half-turn, his ability to burst into and through tight spaces draws opposition defenders towards him, and in a game such as this one, where the teams are matched up almost man-for-man, Damsgaard’s gravity serves to open up space for his teammates. The following image is a good example.
With 3 players forced to crowd Damsgaard, space has opened up in the centre of the pitch for Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to receive the ball in an advanced position, for Joakim Maehle to make a run on the overlap, or for Martin Braithwaite to run in behind.
Out of possession, Hjulmand sought to use Damsgaard’s exceptional work-rate to prevent Belgium playing out from the back through Toby Alderweireld. By employing man-markers to cut off the centre-back’s short passing options, Denmark would then try to force him into making quick decisions leading to misplaced passes with Damsgaard constantly pressing him. In the situation shown below, this results in Alderweireld going long and turning the ball over to Denmark.
Here, in a very similar position, the pass is delayed long enough for Damsgaard to challenge Alderweireld and put the ball out of play.
Russia 1-4 Denmark
For all their good work against Belgium, Denmark came away empty-handed after the individual brilliance of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne took the game away from them in the second half. This left the side needing a win against Russia in their final group stage game to keep their hopes of qualifying for the knockout rounds alive.
Given Russia’s tendency to drop into a compact, low block and the relative lack of attacking threat (compared to Belgium), Damsgaard was given a more free-roaming role in this game. Often switching flanks as well as drifting inside, he was a key cog in the Danish machinery which tried to disorient the Russians and draw them out of shape.
Denmark employed several counter-movements throughout this game, which are specific moves meant to distort an opposition’s shape and open up gaps, by having two players move in opposite directions simultaneously to create confusion in the minds of their respective markers.
In the above image, with striker Yussuf Poulsen dropping off, Damsgaard takes the initiative to make the forward run and get into an advanced central position in behind the defence. It was a refreshing change to see from his performance in the previous game, where he was more or less playing in a specific area of the pitch.
Damsgaard also performed the other half of these counter movements well; he often dropped much deeper in possession, to receive the ball directly from the centre-backs or wing-backs, effectively becoming the left-sided central midfielder as Thomas Delaney pushed forwards off the ball at the same time.
It would be impossible to talk about this match and not mention Damsgaard’s goal, the first one of the game, which he scored in the 38th minute. Picking the ball up just outside the penalty area, he takes one touch to shift the ball out of his feet before curling it into the top corner, past the despairing Matvey Safonov in an awesome show of technique.
Apart from the finish, the goal also showcased his aforementioned ability to find even the smallest gap between the lines to get on the ball.
Wales 0-4 Denmark
In the round of 16, Denmark came up against a Wales side who were expected to provide stiff opposition. Damsgaard’s role was once again modified slightly, for two main reasons. Regular striker Yussuf Poulsen was ruled out through injury, and replaced by Kasper Dolberg. In addition, Denmark faced an opponent playing 4 at the back for the first time since Damsgaard had come into the team.
With Dolberg not as adept as Poulsen at holding defenders off and playing with his back to goal, it meant that Damsgaard played much more centrally than he had before, to provide the striker with support at short range.
With Wales playing a back 4, it also made it more difficult for either right-back Connor Roberts, or centre-back Chris Mepham to engage in a duel with Damsgaard as they would risk leaving Joakim Maehle free on the wing, or end up creating a staggered defensive line which would provide Dolberg and Martin Braithwaite with pockets of space to run into.
Apart from his usual tendencies to get on the ball and make things happen for his side, this match was an excellent show of one of the less quantifiable aspects of Damsgaard’s game; his excellent off-ball movement in attacking transition, touched upon in the previous report on him. In the image shown below, Denmark have penetrated the right side of the Welsh penalty area from a counter-attack. Damsgaard has not had a touch of the ball in the move thus far, but his run, from just inside the Wales half, has been made all along the blindside of the covering defenders.
He does not come into their line of vision until the ball gets played across the area and they turn to notice him. At that point, right-back Neco Williams rushes into a hurried clearance which falls to the feet of Dolberg to finish, and put Denmark 2-0 up.
An improvement that has been made in this aspect of Damsgaard’s game, however, is the timing and direction of when he chooses to accelerate.
In the image here, as the play develops down the Danish right, Damsgaard paces himself, from the half line, to keep in time with Williams’ covering run (again, staying on his blindside throughout). Just as Thomas Delaney cuts inside to release the ball, Damsgaard suddenly bursts across Williams, visibly surprising him in the process.
The run opens up two distinct possibilities. Either the ball gets played in behind to Damsgaard, who has stolen a march on his marker, or, as it happens here, the ball is spread out wide to wing-back Joakim Maehle, who is given the freedom of the left flank to decide his next course of action.
An Overview of Mikkel Damsgaard's Euros and future
Now, this European Championship has been a fantastic advertisement for what Damsgaard brings to the teams he plays for, but especially with the small sample size to go on, that is all it remains—an advertisement, not necessarily the product.
These performances must be caveated with the fact that Hjulmand, as a former manager of Damsgaard’s at club level, possibly knows how best to extract the positives of his game. In addition, the style of football Denmark play is one that suits him, and allows him to shine far more than the counter-attacking system he has played in regularly over the past season.
In the immediate future, Damsgaard’s focus will be on his side’s next test, in the quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, who have proven themselves to be no pushovers thus far. In a game that will be played on his 21st birthday, he will be hoping to mark it with a virtuoso performance.
Longer-term, there have been reports linking him with a move away from Sampdoria this summer, to the likes of Barcelona, AC Milan and Tottenham Hotspur. A step up to one of those clubs at this point would be one too big to make.
Given that he has only experienced the equivalent of half a season in Serie A so far, any potential move away would be a massive gamble for both player and club. Another season at Sampdoria would serve him well, particularly under a manager with a slightly more expansive style of play. There is potential for this to happen, given that Ranieri has left the club upon the expiration of his contract.
If the past year has shown us anything, it is that Damsgaard has taken a solid step towards fulfilling the massive potential he showcased during his Nordsjælland days. He is far from the finished article, but his development has been promising. By all accounts, he is also a sensible and well-grounded professional, and an accolade-filled career is still firmly on the cards.
Profiling Mikkel Damsgaard
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.