World Cup One to Watch: Pione Sisto – Denmark
The Celta Vigo winger should ensure Christian Eriksen isn’t the only Denmark player that should worry opposition defences.
Having moved from Uganda as a baby, the Danish FA were quick to tie Pione Sisto down for the national team as he emerged as a special talent whilst playing for FC Midtjylland, naming him in their U-21 side back in 2014.
But his parents were keen to remind the world of his heritage and made headlines after covering themselves in white powder and performing a traditional tribal dance in front of the Danish media at the press conference following his first call-up.
It wasn’t long before he attracted international awareness again after he scored excellent goals home and away against Manchester United in the Europa League in 2016.
It was at the innovative Midtjylland where he first developed his talent, under coach Glen Riddersholm who gave him his senior debut after coaching him in the youth ranks. His talent is plain to see, but it was also his drive that set him apart from his peers, reportedly training twice as many hours as his teammates.
Playing as an attacking midfielder, he garnered attention from Barcelona and Juventus scouts, as he was named the Danish Superliga’s “Player of the season” in his breakthrough year.
It might have been expected that he moved to a more high-profile club than Celta Vigo in 2016, but they have allowed him a platform to develop further, playing regularly in one of Europe’s strongest leagues.
Still just 23, he’s spent two years at the Galician club and is coming off the best campaign of his career. The time might be right for a big move and eye-catching performances in Russia won’t harm his chances.
Celta Vigo suffered a difficult season, finishing a disappointing 13th as Juan Carlos Unzué, former assistant to Luis Enrique at Barcelona, failed to convince as manager and was dismissed at the end of the season.
But whilst the team was erratic, there were a couple of constants: Iago Aspas was exceptional, deservedly getting in the Spain squad ahead of Alvaro Morata, while Sisto stepped up a level further. The two, in particular, showed a good understanding with one another.
After a solid, if unspectacular debut campaign, his training with Bielsa disciple Eduardo Berizzo clearly worked well for the player, industrious running being a key component of the team’s defensive discipline.
Only four players in Spain had more assists than Sisto this season: Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema and Pablo Fornals. Such illustrious company is a mark of how good he’s been, and five goals was a decent enough return, although with better finishing it might have been more.
Sisto was not yet a Danish citizen whilst he was breaking through at Midtjylland and had to apply in order to be eligible for the national team. Made to wait due to FIFA’s bureaucratic regulations, he could eventually make his senior debut in May 2015, after scoring a hat-trick in his debut for the U-21s.
But it was a short while until Sisto became an international regular. He didn’t feature during the underwhelming failure to qualify for Euro 2016, as they were eventually defeated by Sweden in the playoffs. Having subsequently featured in this qualifying campaign, he can be viewed as one symbol of Denmark’s vast improvement.
They finished second to an impressive Poland in the group before battering Ireland 5-1 in Dublin in the playoffs. Christian Eriksen deservedly got the headlines that night with an unforgettable hat-trick, but Sisto registered two assists and constantly made space by making clever runs down the left. It was a performance that demonstrates how valuable he is to the collective.
This will be his first senior international tournament.
For Celta Vigo, he’s always played on the left, sometimes as a traditional winger in a four-man midfield, but more often played further forward in a front three. Extremely quick, he’s a tricky customer with the ball at his feet and will often beat his man or draw a foul.
Denmark looks to utilise him in a similar way, with a Sisto playing as the left-sided forward in a 4-3-3. But he can also tuck inside, and at times it might look more like a 4-4-1-1.
Denmark doesn’t have a centre forward as wily or dangerous as Aspas, but in Nicolai Jørgensen, they have a more physical presence up front. The 6’3″ Feyenoord striker will demand a different kind of approach from Sisto. Having shown an ability to exploit wide areas, good crosses will be important.
His ability to buy free-kicks could also be pivotal, as Eriksen is one of the most lethal dead-ball specialists at the tournament. He can also look to get the best out of the number ten, as he did against Ireland, by making runs and drawing in defenders to create space for the Tottenham man, who opposition defences will correctly identify as Denmark’s biggest threat and attempt to mark out of the game.
And if Eriksen’s on the ball, Sisto will look to run in behind, confident in his teammates ability to thread a through-ball.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group B in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.