'David has to beat Goliath by using different weapons' - How Midtjylland are hoping to beat Liverpool

Chris Bascombe
·6-min read
Rasmus Ankersen, president of FC Midtjylland and Evander Ferreira of FC Midtjylland celebrate after the Danish Cup Final  - GETTY IMAGES
Rasmus Ankersen, president of FC Midtjylland and Evander Ferreira of FC Midtjylland celebrate after the Danish Cup Final - GETTY IMAGES

Rasmus Ankersen, chairman of Midtjylland, has a favourite phrase which is particularly pertinent ahead of his side’s trip to the six-times European champions.

“David has to beat Goliath by using different weapons,” he says.

Neurology, sleep coaching and meditation are but a few of the munitions favoured by Denmark’s champions which - in less enlightened times - provoked ridicule more than curiosity.

“A few years ago we were discussing if we needed another coach, but we decided to appoint a brain scientist instead," says Ankersen.  

Midtjylland's achievements since forming 21 years ago, the consequence of a controversial merger between once heated rivals Ikast FS and Herning Fremad, has helped bring such independent sensibilities into the mainstream.

Tuesday’s opponents are the ultimate validation. When Jurgen Klopp appointed throw-on coach Thomas Gronnemark to his backroom staff in 2018, he was ahead of his time in England, but several years behind the Danes.

“Liverpool have gone against (convention) because they are a big club and they have been really trying to adopt a different way of doing things,” says Ankersen.

“That paid off for them massively. Big kudos to them for that. Often the innovation does not necessarily come from the big clubs. It comes from the small club because the big clubs are not prepared to take enough risks. They have too much to lose.

"It is very much in the DNA of Midtjylland to try and do things differently. The throw-in coach is a good example. We felt like it was a really important part of the game, but very few clubs dedicate enough time to it. There were a couple of seasons where we scored nine or ten goals from long throws and we had the throw-in coach trying to improve the reach of the long throw for certain players.

"Things like that, and the whole expected goals, we were probably one of the first to adopt. When we evaluate performance we try and look beyond the league table. The league table lies because there is so much randomness in football. But to say the league table lies is like saying the world is flat. It is very difficult for people to buy into because they have heard the opposite for their whole life.”

Ankersen is best known in this country as the co-director of football at Brentford, where he oversees operations along similar ideals. Brentford owner Matthew Benham bought the Danish club in 2014.

Brentford owner Matthew Benham at a Midtjylland game in 2015 - Getty Images
Brentford owner Matthew Benham at a Midtjylland game in 2015 - Getty Images

As with Liverpool’s owners,  Midtjylland and Brentford find themselves associated with ‘Moneyball’ theories, yet just as in Boston, there is an awkward relationship with that simplistic branding. Number crunching is one critical element of their success.

“There are so many opinions and emotions in football that we really try and have an objective approach to how we look at things,” says Ankersen. 

“With the brain scientist, we wanted to align how the brain works with how we practice on the pitch. It definitely made our coaches think more about how they planned sessions, how they would achieve what they wanted and also their understanding that different players have different learning styles. It makes a big difference how you communicate with those players.

“We also have a sleep coach who helps players optimise sleep. That is still underrated within elite sports. We have a ball-striking coach who works with the guys output on direct free-kicks, but just in general. It is like in golf where players work with their swing. Why don’t footballers do the same with how they strike the ball? In the set-pieces, we take a lot of inspiration from American football and how they have playbooks.

"An American footballer is meant to remember 100 plays every season. Why can’t a footballer not remember ten set-piece corner combinations? American football has a lot of stop-start combinations you can compare to football. So we try to optimise that. Over the last five years, we are one of the top two or three in the world at set-pieces, maybe even the best.”

Midtjytlland’s extraordinary ascent is proof enough of the merits of their approach, Ankersen describing his club as ‘the great disruptor’ of Danish football by winning three league titles in the last five years. 

Qualifying for the Champions League group stage for the first time prompted the 37-year-old chairman to arrange a celebratory meal for senior staff, many of whom have been at the club since its inception, so they could watch the draw together.

When Liverpool’s name was drawn, for some the emotion was too much.

“Our kit man, Jorgen Kjaer, cried,” says Ankersen.

 Jurgen Klopp Signs A Contract Extension and chats with Sporting Director Michael Edwards and Mike Gordon  - Getty Images
Jurgen Klopp Signs A Contract Extension and chats with Sporting Director Michael Edwards and Mike Gordon - Getty Images

“He is the father of the Denmark national team captain, Simon. His kit room is only Liverpool because he is a massive Liverpool fan. There are a few Midtjylland shirts in there but there are Liverpool shirts all over the room. This is obviously a very, very big thing for him to go to Anfield. A big, big moment for him was last year when we played Europa League qualification against Glasgow Rangers and he had a chance to meet Steven Gerrard, Liverpool legend. Liverpool has been a big part of people's lives here. There is a massive Liverpool following in Denmark going back to the 1970s and 80s. A lot of people in Denmark in our area have two clubs they support - Midtjylland and Liverpool.”

Although Ankersen acknowledges some resentment from Denmark's traditionalists given how Midtjylland formed and rewrote the rules of engagement, there is a Hans Christian Andersen vibe to their presence in the competition.

The concern is a European Super League will eventually prevent emerging sides dining at the top table.

“Midtjylland is a good example of keeping the dream alive for small clubs,” says Ankersen.

“I've been taking part in all these European Club Association meetings in the past few years, where all the conversations are what the future is going to look like in European football and, unfortunately, the way it's going, there's going to be some reforms coming up in the next years. “They will move football towards becoming more of a closed league for the big teams. It's really important for football that it's actually possible for a team like Midtjylland, from a small town with 50,000 people in the middle of nowhere in the west of Denmark, to go and play on the biggest stage.

"That's the fairytale we love, I hope that opportunity will still be kept alive for us, and other teams in similar positions, but I think it's going to be more and more difficult. It's obviously a financial game. "In Midtjylland's position, we cannot just sit and wait for what the big clubs are going to decide. We have to think about different competition structures among countries, within countries, that can give ourselves an opportunity to keep growing."

Midtjytlland took a heavy beating to Atalanta in their first group game.

“We can’t expect our opponents to be worse in the next five games,” says Ankersen.

Whatever Tuesday’s outcome, football needs to ensure David not only occasionally defeats Goliath, but that he has the chance to physically face him.

“That's what we love,” says Ankerson. “A small team can beat a big team. Maybe not over a season of 40 games, but over one or two games? It's possible.”