Article by Ben Griffis
SønderjyskE and FC Midtjylland battled it out in the second leg DBU Polkaen Semi-Final on April 15, 2021. Midtjylland won the first leg at home 1-0, meaning a single goal would force Sønderjyske to score 3 to go through. That would be a tall task for a club in the Relegation Group of the Superliga against one of the best teams in Danish football over the past few years.
While Sønderjyske had lost 8 of their last 10 matches in the league, they beat Midtjylland—currently in 1st place in the Championship Group—in both league games this season. Further, Sønderjyske won last season’s cup, which was the first time the club had ever reached the final. Sønderjyske’s manager Glen Riddersholm even led Midtjylland to their first-ever Superliga win in 2014/15. Midtjylland’s Brian Priske only became a manager when Midtjylland appointed him in November 2019, but already has a 2019/20 Superliga trophy to his name. The stage was set for an interesting match up which exceeded expectations as Sønderjyske prevailed 3-2 on the tie after a direct style of play led them to a 3-1 victory.
Sønderjyske’s Buildup and Attack
Sønderjyske’s buildup started from the two center backs and one midfield who dropped deep and sat in front of them to receive a pass. The midfielder would then look for diagonal balls to Simonsen or the striker, sometimes passing to a fullback instead; the fullbacks then looked up field. Many times, the midfielder dropped back while the ball went long to Simonsen or the striker, bypassing all midfield players.
The main passing pattern in Sønderjyske’s attack was long, diagonal balls into space on the wings or up to the striker. Once Haji Wright entered the game in the 64th minute, he acted as a focal point for the defenders to aim at. The midfielders were mainly there for second balls or to receive passes if the long ball wasn’t an option.
Sønderjyske moved the ball up the pitch at a high tempo, mainly through quick long balls or sprints down the wings from the fullbacks or wingers. Simonsen was the main attacking threat, so Sønderjyske favored their right wing. Simonsen stayed wide a majority of the time to allow for a counter-attacking outlet once Sønderjyske won the ball back.
Sønderjyske’s direct, diagonal, long-ball style of play was high-risk but high-reward when it worked. Much of the time the passes were off target, allowing Midtjylland to win back possession. When the passes were on target, however, Simonsen caused panic in the back line. Sønderjyske aimed to attack the space between and behind Aílton and Scholz, who struggled with Simonsen’s pace coupled with a piercing ball.
To facilitate Simonsen having space to run into, Sønderjyske’s players shifted left while Simonsen stayed deep, opening up lots of space in front of Simonsen if he could beat his marker, Aílton. Sønderjyske employed this pattern of movement more at the beginning of the match than the end, as Midtjylland pushed higher looking for goals and Simonsen didn’t need to stay as deep.
Both of Simonsen’s goals came from this attacking pattern. For first goal in the 49th minute, he sprinted into the box past Aílton as Finne chipped the defensive line. Simonsen’s second goal came via a pass from deep into vast amounts of space while Midtjylland were out of position. I will show a diagram of this goal in Midtjylland’s defensive section. Overall, Midtjylland couldn’t handle the direct attack down Sønderjyske’s right wing.
A second attacking pattern led to two goals: an own goal, and a disallowed goal. Sønderjyske aimed crosses at the space behind Midtjylland’s back line and their keeper Hansen. The crosses were from close enough and at such an angle where Hansen couldn’t come for them, and the back line had no time to adjust while still defending the onrushing attacker.
One passage of play saw Sønderjyske combine both of their attacking plans to near perfection. A threaded diagonal ball put Simonsen into acres of space, and he ran to the top corner of the box and crossed it—between the defense and keeper—to Wright. Wright missed the chance, but they cut Midtjylland open.
Another feature of Sønderjyske’s attack included long throws into the box from left back Kanstrup. Whenever Sønderjyske earned a throw in the final third, the center backs moved into the box, Kanstrup came over, and delivered a long throw. Midtjylland did well to defend these throws, however. Yet these long throws were another high-risk, high-reward move from Sønderjyske. Luckily for Midtjylland, this specific tactic did not pay off, and luckily for Sønderjyske, the risk of bringing both enter backs up and your left back to the touchline didn’t hurt them.
Sønderjyske defended in a 4-5-1, with both wingers coming back to help. The lines were very close, leaving Jacobsen or Wright isolated up top as an outlet for counters or to chase clearances.
Sønderjyske didn’t press Midtjylland intensely, but sent a man to put pressure on the ballplayer without making a challenge for the ball unless they were confident of winning possession. As the game went on, however, Sønderjyske players were making challenges sooner rather than later.
Pressure on the ballplayer only came once they stepped over the halfway line. Sønderjyske were happy to let Midtjylland’s defenders or Madsen have the ball in their own half. Riddersholm, however, would occasionally shout at his attacking players to engage defenders or the keeper.
One key component to Sønderjyske’s defense was their structure and positional rigidity. Players would sometimes track the movement of the opposition, but more often than not Sønderjyske’s players maintained their set positions to allow for a quick transition and movement of the ball away from their net. This rigidity can be problematic, but in this match led to Simonsen’s second goal instead.
Sønderjyske defenders became more nervous in the last 15 minutes, with simple errors giving possession back to Midtjylland or allowing them unnecessary chances. Schmiedl’s two errors both led to massive chances. Evander’s goal came from him pinching the ball off Schmiedl who tried to play around the onrushing Evander, and a missed ball as he swung his leg to clear led to a chance which Sisto should have buried.
Midtjylland’s Buildup and Attack
Midtjylland built up from a back three of both center backs and Madsen, who dropped to sit in front of Sviatchenko and Scholz. The fullbacks remained deeper in the first half than the second, but were on the touchline. Typically, Andersson pushed higher than Aílton. Every ball went through Madsen.
Isaksen and Mabil remained very wide and looked to run at Sønderjyske’s defenders. Mabil was the primary outlet in the first half, and Isaksen in the second. Madsen played diagonal balls to wither winger, playing through the wings similar to how Sønderjyske did. Both teams looked to bypass their midfielders but would use them occasionally.
The wingers played lots of crosses into the box, aimed either at Brumado for a header, or a long cross to the opposite winger’s feet for a shot or pullback.
Cajuste had a relatively free role, and he would pop up on either side of the pitch to help move the ball forward or recycle possession.
Sisto filled the free roaming role once he came into the game, leaving Aílton the only player on the left flank. This offered Simonsen even more space to attack when possession changed hands.
In the second half, one midfielder (Madsen while in the game, otherwise Evander or Onyeka) would drop near the center backs while all other players pushed high up the pitch. This allowed for many Midtjylland players to be in the area for long and second balls, but opened themselves up to poor positioning and counters.
Sisto caused many problems for Sønderjyske after coming on, and should have started. He should have had a goal, and if the game continued for 15 more minutes, he most likely would have scored. Schmiedl and Gartenmann had difficulties when he was on the left wing, and there was confusion about who would pick Sisto up when he drifted centrally.
A major problem with Midtjylland’s attack was individual errors, such as misplaced passes and poor passing decisions—such as passing long when a simpler pass to a midfielder would have been a better option. Midtjylland players gifted possession to Sønderjyske frequently, which inhibited the team from finding any sort of rhythm.
Midtjylland typically defended in a 4-3-3 with Cajuste dropping with the other midfielders, but also in a 5-4-1 when Madsen dropped to the back line and the wingers came back with the midfield. Brumado pressed the back line and keeper throughout the match, while the rest of the squad would engage Sønderjyske players when they approached with the ball. Because of Sønderjyske’s style of play, Midtjylland players were mainly tasked with winning aerials.
A lack of proper attention to Simonsen’s threat spelled danger for Midtjylland’s back line. Aílton was tasked with defending Simonsen, could not find the right positioning, allowing Simonsen to run behind him while still being onside from the back line. More communication between Midtjylland defenders was necessary. Last, Midtjylland played too high of a line which allowed Sønderjyske to execute their game plan to perfection. Simonsen had lots of space to run into, and crossers could find the space between the defensive line and goalkeeper.
Because of Midtjylland’s aggressive search for goals in the last quarter of the match, the attacking mentality led to disastrous defensive shapes. For Simonsen’s second goal, the transition from attack to defense was nearly impossible as most players were committed both forward and to the right side. Sønderjyske kept their shape and won an aerial. Two quick passes later, Simonsen was open with half of the pitch free for him to run into. Even in the search for a goal, Midtjylland should have kept a rough structure and not commit too many players to one side of the pitch when the threat of a counterattack is looming.
While it wasn’t silky smooth football, Sønderjyske had a game plan, stuck to it, won the match, and are in the Final. Both of Simonsen’s goals were perfect examples of their plan—quickly move the ball from defense and run into space behind the defense. Wingers aimed crosses at a forward or midfielder running past the defensive line, resulting in a Midtjylland own goal and Finne’s disallowed offside goal. These two attacking plans carved Midtjylland up. Sønderjyske’s defensive structure was very important, not so much their formation as their rigidity to sticking to positions. They could counter well because Midtjylland were usually out of formation. An extreme example is Simonsen’s second goal, but many times Midtjylland’s shape was too free form in the final third and opened themselves up to swift counters. The squad was nervous towards the end, making 2 key mistakes—one for a goal, one for a Sisto chance—but luckily the game ended before a second goal, which seemed inevitable, flew in.
Midtjylland played a decent game but were compromised by their individual and team errors. They repeatedly got beat by Sønderjyske’s runs behind their defenders yet never dropped their lines nor had one of their center backs act as a sweeper. Many misplaced passes gave possession back to Sønderjyske, and Brian Priske didn’t take Sønderjyske seriously from the start. Once the substitutes came on, like Sisto and Onyeka, Midtjylland had more chances. However, throughout the game, their inability to cope with Sønderjyske’s long-ball game plans led to their defeat.
Sønderjyske are now in their second-ever Danish Cup final and have hopes of defending their title from last year against Randers.
Sydbank Park, Haderslev, where the match took place.