Kasper Hjulmand: friend, philosopher, leader … coach

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Just 42 minutes after the opening game against Finland, Denmark lost their hero. Christian Eriksen, your most famous footballer of this generation.

Three and a half games later, they found a new hero. Kasper Hjulmand, your trainer, who recites poetry and pounds on your chest.

Eriksen united and inspired his team and his country; Hjulmand forged a strong-willed squad, not just a feel-good story, but contenders capable of overthrowing larger teams and starting as favorites for the Czech Republic’s quarter-finals on Friday night.

Reaching the last eight after the tragedy itself is a moving narrative of mental strength.

But the nature of their journey has confirmed that they are not just an ordinary bunch suddenly struck by tragedy, but with the inherent potential and quality to go deep into the tournament.

Against Belgium, they guarded the citadel for 75 minutes while repeatedly storming the Belgian fortress before giving in to Kevin de Bruyne’s ingenuity in the last 10 minutes.

Russia has been pushed aside as the champions teams deliver underdogs. Wales was tactically outmaneuvered. Not only were they robbed of Eriksen’s, but two others who were deemed indispensable; their main goal scorer Yussuf Poulsen and utility player Daniel Wass.

The absence of the trio was felt, Eriksen’s absence forced a revision of the formation and position, Poulsen minimized their scoring danger, Wass meant that they had no players who offered versatility and structural flexibility.

But they were not afraid. Hjulmand had a solution for everything.

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After Eriksen’s departure, he switched from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-3 against Belgium and Russia to a 4-3-3 against Wales. He pushed Pierre-Emile Højbjerg into a more advanced role. Although not as creative as Eriksen, his directness, leadership and passing game made a big difference.

To fill the hole that Højbjerg had left in central midfield, he gave full-back Andres Christen a license to move to midfield and shield the defense. All of his changes worked. Kasper Dolberg scored a brace against Wales while Jens Stryger Larsen scored on the right. His pace and cunning give the Danes another dimension.

While Eriksen was once the focus of their attacks, the threat is more dispersed. It could come from anywhere. The game also has a more straightforward focus, with an emphasis on long ranges than before.

The numbers they have compiled are impressive. Their odds per minute (2.15) are the third highest of any team; their 37 touches in the opposing penalty area per 90 minutes are most of the remaining teams.

There are offensive verses as well as defensive tenacity – only firing an average of six shots, the second lowest of all teams. The flexibility and pragmatism of Hjulmand, who idolizes Pep Guardiola and worships Johan Cruyff, who was ridiculed as a hopeless romantic when he was in the Bundesliga, made even his most staunch critics change their minds.

The Danish press has given it a new name: “Frelser”, loosely translated as “Savior”. But more for what he did in the locker room than on the pitch after the Eriksen tragedy.

After the game against Russia, captain Kasper Schmeichel said: “The players deservedly get a lot of praise, but there is one thing we shouldn’t forget and that is Kasper Hjulmand.”

Unifying factor

Defender Joakim Mæhle explained his influence in the dressing room: “He’s good at talking to the player and giving him the freedom that many players need. He also showed his feelings after what happened to Christian and that he needed help too. What we’ve been through only brought us closer together. He’s a good trainer and now a friend to us too. “

Hjulmand himself was desperate. He and Eriksen were good friends and admitted that he felt empty and vulnerable for days after the incident. “I felt like football was meaningless,” he said.

He was helped by the fact that he had experienced something similar during his time as assistant coach at Nordsjaelland in 2008. In the middle of a reserve game, a midfielder was struck by lightning and suffered a heart attack so severe that he fell into a coma for two weeks and his left leg was amputated. Hjulmand had suffered setbacks in his playing career, had nine knee operations before he left professional football at the age of 26 and went to the United States to do a master’s in business administration in North Florida.

When he succeeded the hugely successful Norwegian Age Hareide coach of Denmark last year, he had to endure a lot of ridicule. A week after taking office, he invited leading athletes, ex-soccer players, politicians, artists and business people to a boardroom to discuss the identity of Danish football, “the ideals that should be reflected in their football team”.

The philosophical inclinations saw him as a “dreamer”, “poet” and even in a negative sense as a “drifter”. One whose stay was doomed to failure.

But not anymore. He has won many admirers in the past fortnight. “This is how a modern leader acts, and Kasper Hjulmand has shown the way to all other leaders in this country. Hjulmand is the front runner of the year, ”wrote the Danish newspaper BT in an editorial. A magazine Euroman stated: “We may not be European champions. But instead we have a new world champion in management. “

A coach who masters tactics, but is also human. A hero, or better still a Frelser.