How do you replace an attacking midfielder from Denmark who is excellent at set pieces and scoring long-range goals?
It is an issue that threatened to define Brentford’s summer 2022 transfer window.
Despite offering Christian Eriksen a financial package that would have made him the best-paid player in the club’s history, he decided to join Manchester United this summer when the six-month contract he signed upon arrival in January expired.
During his short spell with Brentford, which marked his return to football after that mid-match cardiac arrest playing for his country last June, Eriksen helped them win seven of their final 11 matches and avoid relegation straight back to the EFL by finishing 13th, 11 points clear of the drop.
Losing his vision and exquisite passing range is a blow for Thomas Frank’s side.
The answer to their problems turned out to be obvious, though: simply sign another Danish attacking midfielder with a knack for scoring outrageous goals.
— UEFA EURO 2024 (@EURO2024) July 19, 2021
Mikkel Damsgaard joins on a five-year contract from Sampdoria of Italy’s Serie A in a deal worth around €12million (£10.1m, $12.4m) and will help fill the creative void caused by his countryman’s departure to Old Trafford.
The 22-year-old should be familiar to fans around the world — he was the one who ripped up the script and fired a dipping 25-yard free-kick past England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to put Denmark 1-0 up in last year’s European Championship semi-final at Wembley.
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) July 7, 2021
Damsgaard, just 20 at the time, began that tournament on the bench before being promoted into the starting line-up for the remaining five games following Eriksen’s collapse during the opening group match against Finland.
However, do not fall into the trap of thinking he is a direct replacement.
The two Danes possess different skill sets and Damsgaard will bring a unique dimension to Brentford’s attack.
There is a huge sense of excitement at Brentford around Damsgaard’s arrival, but we need to dampen our expectations slightly. After catching the eye at the Euros, he missed six months of last season through injury and only made 11 appearances in Serie A. Also, as with most imports from overseas, it will take time for him to settle into English football.
Damsgaard was initially ruled out in October with a thigh injury picked up on international duty, then had knee surgery. When that failed to alleviate his discomfort, doctors carried out a series of tests and found he had a form of arthritis. The diagnosis threatened his career but, fortunately, treatment allowed him to return to training in March.
“It’s nice to be back,” he told Sampdoria’s media channel at the time. “It’s difficult to explain, but I’ve been sick in the hospital. It’s been tough, but I’ve gotten over it, I got the right medicine. I am working hard to play again because I want to do what I love and that’s playing football.”
He made his comeback as a late substitute in a 2-1 loss to Salernitana on April 16 and played another three times, all off the bench, before the season finished.
Once he has proven his fitness, there will be pressure on him to provide creativity in Brentford’s midfield.
Thomas Frank says Damsgaard can thrive as either an ‘eight’ or as a ‘ten’ in Brentford’s 4-3-3 system. Yet he will help them unlock defences in a different way to Eriksen.
If you take a look at where Eriksen has played down the years, it is clear he thrives in central areas.
Because the 30-year-old former Tottenham star only made those 11 appearances for Brentford, we have used data from his season and a half with previous club Inter Milan to give us a more accurate picture of his game.
Brentford switched between 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 last season, with Eriksen given licence to roam. He would often drop deep and drift out to the left to receive possession, or pop up behind Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo in more advanced areas.
Damsgaard is more of a traditional winger than central attacking midfielder. He likes to receive the ball by the touchline down his team’s left flank on his right foot, which opens up space for him to drive inside towards goal.
Aged 20, he joined Sampdoria from Danish side Nordsjaelland in the summer of 2020 in a deal worth €6.75million (around £6.1m/$7.5m). In his debut season with the Genoa-based club, he played on the right, as a No 10 and up front across 35 Serie A appearances, 18 of them starts.
This level of versatility is a quality his new team-mate and fellow summer signing Keane Lewis-Potter shares. The evidence suggests Damsgaard, Lewis-Potter and Yoane Wissa all prefer operating on the left and it will be interesting to see how Frank combines all of that attacking talent.
In Damsgaard’s injury-wrecked second year with Sampdoria, the majority of his 589 minutes came on the left.
Sampdoria were flexible with their formations under head coach Roberto D’Aversa and then his January replacement Marco Giampaolo last season, which suggests the Dane should not have much trouble adapting to Brentford’s demands and various systems.
By analysing his smarterscout profile, which uses data to give players ratings out of 99 for different stylistic actions within the game, we get greater insight into what Damsgaard will offer Brentford.
The winger’s link-up play volume rating (91 out of 99) suggests he should excel at bringing his team-mates into play. Brentford lacked ideas and fluidity going forward at times last season, but if Damsgaard interchanges positions, he should create pockets of space others can exploit.
He is a great dribbler who can wriggle out of tight spaces, which correlates with his carry and dribble volume rating (72 out of 99) and his ability to advance the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression: 76 out of 99).
Damsgaard has a reputation for scoring sublime goals from distance, but he does also like to push into the penalty area and take possession (receptions in the box: 91 out of 99).
He rates exceptionally well in the defensive metrics, too, which will please Frank, who demands that his players work hard without the ball. Damsgaard’s ability to disrupt opposition moves by performing defensive actions such as tackles and clearances (defending intensity: 99 out of 99) and make vital recoveries and interceptions (91 out of 99) will help Brentford turn over possession high up the pitch in dangerous areas for the opposition.
If you are still thinking Damsgaard is a natural successor to Eriksen, look at this example from Sampdoria’s 2-1 win over a title-bound Inter side in January 2021 — a day when Eriksen was on the bench for the visitors.
Damsgaard collects the ball just inside the Inter half with his back to goal and, under pressure from Roberto Gagliardini, produces a beautiful pirouette to get himself into space.
After narrowly avoiding a collision with the referee, he begins to pick up speed. However, he has now caught the attention of Marcelo Brozovic.
The Croatia midfielder sets off in pursuit but cannot keep up with Damsgaard’s blistering speed, which prompts centre-back Alessandro Bastoni to intervene.
Damsgaard flies away from Bastoni’s feeble attempt to stop him and towards the edge of the box.
Inter have five defenders back now, with two more just beyond the box, whereas the only Sampdoria player in support is Keita Balde.
Damsgaard demonstrates remarkable composure and exquisite skill to pick out his team-mate among all those Inter shirts, and Balde beats Achraf Hakimi to the ball, then slots it past Samir Handanovic to double Sampdoria’s lead.
This ability to drive at opponents and dribble past them contrasts with the skill set of Eriksen, who prefers to dictate play from deep with his passing.
Brentford’s new boy thrives in situations where he is running with the ball and can force defenders to over-commit.
Here, away to Atalanta in October 2020, Sampdoria launch a counter-attack from a home corner.
Damsgaard receives the ball on the halfway line under pressure…
… and Atalanta’s defenders become so fixated on stopping him, they leave Fabio Quagliarella in acres of space to his left.
Quagliarella drives into the box and rips an angled effort into the roof of the net past Marco Sportiello.
If Damsgaard plays centrally like that for Brentford, he could get a lot of assists by similarly attracting attention with his mazy runs and then slipping balls to Wissa, Lewis-Potter or Mbeumo out wide.
Damsgaard might be a completely different type of midfielder to Eriksen, but they do share the ability to unlock stubborn defences with a moment of magic.
Joakim Maehle is in possession just outside the Scottish box when Damsgaard, who is facing the wrong direction, demands the ball.
Maehle passes it to his team-mate, then darts forward into space. Damsgaard cheekily chips the ball with the outside of his right boot over the top of Scotland’s defence…
… Maehle takes a great first touch with his chest and prods the ball past Craig Gordon.
In 13 competitive appearances for his country, Damsgaard has 10 goal involvements — scoring four and assisting six.
Our look at his smarterscout profile highlighted how hard he works out of possession. It is important to acknowledge he does not simply chase after every loose ball, but intelligently waits for the right opportunity to pounce.
Here, in a Nations League match at home to Croatia in June, where he played alongside Eriksen in a midfield three, Damsgaard is on the far side of the pitch as Josip Juranovic targets Kristijan Jakic at a throw-in.
Juranovic manages to heave the ball over Eriksen’s head but then, as Jakic prepares to control it, Damsgaard makes his move.
He anticipates Jakic’s pass back towards Martin Erlic…
… easily beats the centre-back to the ball and nudges it into space.
Striker Andreas Cornelius then takes over, cutting inside and ignoring the option of a return pass down the side of the Croatia defence to curl a left-footed strike that hits the post.
Damsgaard created a chance for his team simply by knowing when to put pressure on an opponent.
So, although he is not the natural replacement for Eriksen many in their corner of west London have been hoping for, Damsgaard still promises to evolve Brentford’s attacking options.
Blessed with extreme speed and great dribbling ability, he looks to be a perfect fit among Frank’s fluid forward options.
(Photo: Thor Wegner/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)