By Philip O'Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - After two years without a competitive defeat in open play and a run to the knockout rounds of the World Cup Denmark coach Age Hareide is reaping the rewards for a tweak to the country's footballing philosophy.
The Scandinavian country has long been associated with a stylish passing game and the team of the mid-1980s had the purists purring and dubbing Denmark the "Brazil of Europe."
Hareide, appointed in 2015 as successor to Morten Olsen, realised the the Danes needed more substance and a physical presence to compliment their natural ball players.
The signs are he has found a potent mix and the 65-year-old believes Denmark can get even better.
"I wanted to play a little bit more direct, especially after winning the ball, as football has changed throughout Europe," Hareide told Reuters in an interview.
"Most of the sides are very organised and very hard to break down, so you need to be very good at winning the ball and getting it forward quickly.
"If you look at France, the world champions, they were extremely good at that -- solid defence, win the ball, use it directly."
Denmark were beaten on penalties by eventual runners-up Croatia in the last 16 of the World Cup.
Since then Denmark won their UEFA Nations League group, giving them an extra playoff chance to make it to the 2020 European Championship, should they need it.
Their superb recent record would suggest they should be able to qualify directly.
"We've played for two years now with no defeats (in competitive games), we've been to the World Cup and won our Nations League group -- it's very difficult to do much better than that," Norwegian Hareide said.
Hareide is lucky to have Tottenham Hotspur playmaker Christian Eriksen pulling the strings in midfield.
"He has the capability to break up defences with his passing. He's a great player, and I think teams that have a player like him are capable of winning games, because he can be the difference between the sides," Hareide said.
The good news for Denmark is that a new generation of talent appears to be emerging just in time for start of the European Championship qualifiers in March.
"You have Robert Skov at FC Copenhagen, he's the top scorer in the Danish Superligaen now and he has a fantastic left foot, we have (Jacob) Bruun Larsen in Dortmund and we have Philip Billing at Huddersfield establishing himself in the Premier League," he said.
"We have a fairly young team, the players are playing in the big leagues in Europe, most are playing regularly and at a young age, they still have the possibility to get even better."
(Reporting by Philip O'Connor; editing by Martyn Herman)