The Black Wolves from Midtjylland – Scouting Benfica’s Opponent
Tuesday evening, SL Benfica take on Danish side FC Midtjylland in the qualification for the Champions League. It’s a matchup that the Portuguese giants are expected to advance from, but the Danes have confidence after a managerial change last week, and shouldn’t be underestimated. So, who are the Black Wolves, and what should Benfica look out for over the two meetings?
A short but successful history
FC Midtjylland was founded in 1999 when Ikast and Herning merged into one club. The vision was to build one powerhouse and take over central Jutland. And do that, they certainly have.
The club was off to a slow start, despite serious financial backing from the local businesses. From the start, the foundation was an emphasis on offensive and attractive football and developing the best possible local talent.
Over the years, Midtjylland have done just that. Players such as Simon Kjær, Viktor Fischer, Rasmus Nissen Kristensen, Frank Onyeka and Paul Onuachu have all taken the trip from youth player to the first team, and the official goal of the club is to develop a Balon d’Or winner within the near future.
However, it wasn’t until Matthew Benham, the owner of Premier League side Brentford FC, bought the controlling stake at the club in 2014, that it became a household member of the elite. With his money and the knowledge he brought with him from SmartOdds, a sports betting data collection company, Midtjylland were able to take the final step up to the elite.
A year after his take over, they won the Danish championship for the first time ever, and have since added another two championships and as many cups. They’ve furthermore participated in both the Champions League and Europa League group stage.
Chaotic start to the season and managerial changes
After finishing second and winning the cup last season, Midtjylland had their ambitions firmly set on winning the league this season. They kept their biggest stars on the books, but they quickly got off to a shaky start.
In their opening match, they drew 1-1 at home against FC Randers, and then followed an embarrassing 1-3 defeat at home to Silkeborg IF. Two rounds into the Superliga, they were already five points behind the first place. In European football, they didn’t fare much better. Against AEK Larnaca, they disappointed by only managing 1-1 at home in the opening match, and they had to go into a penalty shootout in the return leg before securing the trip to the Benfica matchup.
The unconvincing performance in Cyprus was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and head coach Bo Henriksen was sacked in the airport after the team arrived back in Denmark.
Henriksen is famous for his people and motivational skills in Denmark, but he clearly lacked in the tactical department. He never truly managed to set his mark on the team, and his Midtjylland side failed to develop an identity.
To replace him, FCM has chosen his assistant, Henrik Jensen. He is hired on a temporary contract while the club searches for a permanent replacement. In his debut as head coach, Midtjylland demolished OB away by 5-1, and he couldn’t have asked for a better start to the job.
It is yet to be seen what exactly Jensen wants to do with the team. Against OB, he lined up in the same 3-4-3 formation that Henriksen used. He did however change the front striker from Anders Dreyer, who was then deployed on the wing, his natural position, to Sory Kaba. The introduction of Kaba gave Midtjylland much more physicality in the box, and it clearly worked well. Long term, however, the 3-4-3 formation does have its limitations as Midtjylland tend to be overrun in the midfield, while their defenders are often overnumbered in counterattacks, where they are vulnerable.
Exciting youngsters and an experienced captain
Starting from the back, Midtjylland have a promising young goalkeeper between the posts. 22-year-old Elias Olafsson from Iceland has forced club legend, and former Premier League starter, Jonas Lössl away from the club. Olafsson has taken the Superliga with storm since becoming a regular last season, and his future looks bright.
The defence is managed by captain Erik Sviatchenko, previously with Celtic FC. He is the stalwart, and the player the youngsters look for when things are rough. Sviatchenko is arguably the best central defender in the Superliga, and he’ll give the Benfica strikers a fight.
A player Benfica won’t face is Brazilian playmaker, Evander. The technical wizard is injured, and he has likely played his last game for the club. He has been rumoured to bigger clubs for some time now, among these FC Porto, and it is time for Midtjylland to cash in. With Evander out, the central midfield now belongs to 21-year-old Raphael Onyedika. The Nigerian became a regular last season, and he is getting better and better as each day goes by. He can play both ways, and his work rate is tremendous.
The biggest star on the team, however, is Anders Dreyer. He recently became the biggest FCM signing ever, as they bought him back from Rubin Kazan. Dreyer left FCM for Russia last July, but after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he opted to leave the country, playing on a short-term loan at Midtjylland in the spring. Now Midtjylland have brought him back permanently, and he has paid back immediately. Scoring three goals in the first three games, Dreyer is back as one of the absolute best players in the Superliga, and if they are to have any chance against Benfica, they’ll need him to deliver.
There is plenty of confidence in the Midtjylland squad after the big victory in the weekend, but the team is not on the level of the side that played in the Champions League group stage in 2020. This Midtjylland team is still under construction, and while there are profiles on the team, it lacks a bit of stability on both ends. The team could also use a proper striker that can compete with the best teams, as it currently misses too many chances.
The expectation in Denmark is a Benfica victory. While the ambitions are always high on FCM’s account, the team isn’t in a state where an upset can be expected. However, the black wolves have enough quality in their squad to surprise if Benfica are sloppy, so they should by no means be underestimated.
Toke Theilade is the Editor-in-Chief at Vilfortpark.dk. He’s previously been published in The Blizzard, The Moscow Times, and worked with outlets such as The Athletic, ESPN, The New Yorker and several others from Denmark and Abroad on football stories.