FEATURE | World Cup One to Watch: Joakim Mæhle

Despite the traumatising start to their Euro 2020 campaign, Denmark came out of the tournament having achieved a semi-final finish thanks largely innovative and impressive football. One of the most striking tactical aspects of Kasper Hjulmand’s side was the willingness to use traditional right-back Joakim Mæhle as a left wing-back. While that’s nothing particularly new, the manner in which the Atalanta man played was certainly memorable.

Rather than inverting into midfield, or staying reserved like Kieran Trippier has tended to do for England, Mæhle bombed forward throughout the tournament with confidence. Two goals and an assist seemed to set up the former Genk defender for a starring season in Bergamo. Intriguingly, over a year later, the 25-year-old still appears more comfortable within his national setup as he’s contributed to as many goals in Serie A as he did in those six games last summer.

A series of small injuries haven’t helped the full-back either, with Mæhle sitting 13th in the squad for Serie A minutes last term. His coach Gian Piero Gasperini had an interesting theory as to why he is yet to fulfil his potential, telling TV Sport last April: “All the interruptions with the national team have been a bit of a problem in terms of staying focused on the league here.” Perhaps that’s because, despite being a rotation option at right- and left-wing back for Atalanta, Mæhle has continued to excel for the national team. Nothing stands out quite as much as that memorable trivela assist against the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals of the Euros, but 10 goals and assists in 15 games since then is a record most strikers would be proud of.

In fairness, Atalanta only welcomed the Dane to Italy in January 2021 on loan, before making the deal permanent for €13.7m in the summer. He also had to compete with club favourite Hans Hateboer on the right and both Guiseppe Pezzella and Davide Zappacosta on the left. That’s not counting Robin Gosens either, who left for Inter Milan midway through last season. The 2022/23 campaign has been kinder, though, with Mæhle playing much more of a key role that’s definitively on the left-wing as Atalanta have pushed Napoli at the top of the table. Gasperini has given his wing-back more confidence too in entering the final third, with his 3.77 shot-creating-actions per 90 minutes, the highest of his career in Serie A so far, according to FBRef.

Defensive statistics make for fine reading as well, with his tackle success rate of 66.7% also the highest it’s ever been, and the fourth best in the Atalanta squad of anyone to play more than 450 minutes. In the final third, Mæhle’s contributions can come in various situations too. Clearly adept at going on his left and right foot, sometimes you will see him charging to the by-line before sliding to cut the ball back, as he did so well against Austria in June to assist Wolfsburg’s Jonas Wind. Other times, you see him arrive at the back post, with more control over the shot with his right foot, burying chances like he did in Atalanta’s 6-2 win at Udinese last season.

The ambidexterity Mæhle possesses means he can cut inside from the flank when needed, while having other options up his sleeve. Slowing the play down to turn inside can harm attacks more than benefit them at times, so having the confidence to go on the outside of a defender is useful for the Dane. With such superb form under his belt at national team level and more recently club level, Denmark’s marauding defender will be going into a World Cup group with France, Australia, and Tunisia.

The North African side will be a tough team to break down for Hjulmand and his men, as will be the Australians. That shouldn’t be a problem on paper, considering Mæhle, Kasper Dolberg, Christian Eriksen and the rest of the squad have contributed to 14 goals scored in 2022 across just eight games. Like at the Euros, Denmark are remarkably proficient in both the counter attack and breaking down deeper sitting sides in their 3-4-3 formation.

The toughest team in their group, France, knows this well. Didier Deschamp’s team of superstars lost to the Danish Dynamite home and away in the 2022 Nations League round, leaving the world champions second bottom in the group. Denmark have been more of a counter attacking team as of late, holding under 50% of the ball in their recent Nations League ties. It’s a marked change from their more dominant approach at the Euros, and perhaps it will hold them in better stead.

One thing is for sure, Mæhle will be key to the Red and Whites. He consistently completes the most interceptions in the squad and has a unique presence in the final third, it’s no wonder he has started 22 out of 24 possible games since March 2021 for his nation. After spending the past 18 months playing a rotational role at a club not everyone watches, while featuring for a national team that has just the one major honour, the 2022 World Cup will once again allow Mæhle to shine on the big stage. There’s no reason he can’t repeat his previous magic.

GWFN | Alex Barker

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