Poland: Modern era hopes to replicate former glory

This article features in a four-part series that looks at the some of the teams to watch out for in the World Cup in 2018. The third edition takes a look at the Eastern European country, Poland.

Polish football has been going through a resurgence in recent years. With talent coming through at an alarming rate and players playing at the highest level, the Polish national side has taken full advantage of the players available to them, and have performed exceptionally well in recent years. With the domestic league being given the attention it requires, the country’s football association is handling matters professionally, and they are reaping the rewards.

Poland were dominant forces in football in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In sides containing legendary figures such as Grzegorz Lato, Zbigniew Boniek and Jan Tomaszewski amongst others, they dominated the World Cup scene, finishing third at the tournaments of 1974 and 1982. The former of those tournaments saw the country at their peak, with many tipping them to go all the way, but that marginally failed to occur. The country endured two bleak decades after that, and it wasn’t until 2006 that they started progressing again, which has led them to their current situation.

The Backdrop

Since the turn of the decade, the Polish national side have gone from strength to strength. After a poor showing at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, they impressed in Germany in 2006, despite not making it past the group stages, but they showed their potential. However, they wouldn’t be able to replicate their good form in the next two European Championships in 2008 and 2012 (as hosts). And in addition to that, they also failed to qualify for the 2010 and 2014 editions of the World Cup, but since then, their fortunes have changed drastically.

After their failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2014, the Polish FA, led by the iconic Zbigniew Boniek appointed Adam Nawałka as head coach of their national team. His approach has been different and refreshing, and that has shown in the results. The former midfielder took Poland to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 where they lost to eventual-winners Portugal rather undeservedly, and he even led them to their first World Cup since 2006, and Russia will be their stage to shine.

Poland qualified for the World Cup in impressive fashion, winning eight of their 10 qualifiers, losing and drawing one each and earning 25 points. They also scored 28 goals in the process, the fifth-most in the qualifiers, with star striker Robert Lewandowski showing his best form, bagging 16 of them. In a relatively balanced, and frequently troublesome group that also contained the likes of Denmark, Montenegro, Romania, Armenia and Kazakhstan, Poland were able to seal some big wins and caught the eye with several scintillating performances.

The Coach

Former midfielder Adam Nawałka was a popular figure amongst Polish football in its most dominant phase in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A constant figure for Wisła Kraków in that period, he also played 34 times for the Polish national team and was part of the roster that went to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, where he was included amongst the team of the tournament. A playing career hampered by injury, he took on coaching, where he handled nine different teams over 17 years before taking on the job as the head coach of the Poland National Team.

 

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Since he took over in 2013, Poland have evolved into a force in international football and one of the most enjoyable teams to watch on the international scene. Although FIFA rankings aren’t the best measure of a team’s performance, it can be used to indicate the progress a team has made, and it’s a measure the Polish faithful can be proud of. When Nawałka took over, Poland were ranked 78th in the world (November 2013), but have managed to jump over 70 places over the next four years to be in 7th currently (January 2018) – a mammoth rise that is reflective of their fine performances in major competitions, qualifiers and friendlies alike.

Under Nawałka, Poland have impressed at Euro 2016, where they were astute throughout the competition and were harshly eliminated by Portugal on penalties at the quarter-final stage. Some of Poland’s most memorable results under Nawałka came in qualification for the European Championships of 2016, where they overcame world-champions Germany at home, and a lot of their success over the last few years must be credited to Nawałka’s incredible tactical nous.

Early in his tenure as Poland boss, Nawałka relied on the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation, taking advantage of his full-backs and intelligence in midfield, but that has evolved into a 4-2-3-1/4-5-1, with injuries and player form influencing his decisions. And while he has occasionally reverted to his original strategy, he has found only these two styles as his trusted methods, and it looks likely that this will carry on into the World Cup, where he will look to invalidate Poland’s fiery offensive opponents, Colombia, Senegal and Japan.

Adam Nawałka is intent on keeping possession of the ball, passing it around with swiftness and accuracy and use his wingers effectively, who must make themselves available and organised to deliver the final ball. It’s a simple tactic, but one that has been very operative and that has delivered time and again. In qualification for Euro 2016, it was the full-backs that made themselves important with their overlapping runs and link-up with wingers. Their value was evident in the statistics as the Polish full-backs and wingers were amongst the highest for assists and chances created.

And in addition to the supreme emphasis placed on passing, Nawałka pledges equal importance to pressing. Throughout Euro 2016, a largely visible aspect of the Polish strategy revolved around swift pressing, as the Polish defenders aimed to isolate the wide opposition players by committing two players to pressurize them, forcing a back or sideways passing, thus nullifying any potential attack. That contributed to Poland conceding just two goals all tournament – the joint fewest along with Spain and Italy.

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Finally, as with most teams, there are significant differences between Poland’s setup against ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ opposition, and that is most noticeable in the counter-attacking, pressing and risk. Against ‘lesser’ opposition, or teams who contain the same level of quality as them, they rely on forcing mistakes by the opposition through their intense pressing and running. This aims to engineer crucial counter-attacks, and rapid transitions from defence to attack are abundantly visible. Expect to see this quite often at the World Cup, especially against sides like Japan, who lack the necessary composure to cope in midfield.

Against opposition that possess more control, they rely on their most traditionally valued ability – digging in. The Poles are tough to beat or break when coming up against faster, more reputed opposition and that is what makes them such complicated opponents for the traditional powerhouses. Nawałka relies heavily on organisation in midfield in order to maintain the shape of the team in order to nullify and cut down the gulf in talent between his side and the opposition and that has proven to be a challenge for several teams – just ask Germany, who experienced that in recent qualifiers and major international tournaments.

Their weaknesses can be exposed, however. Although the current backline is strong enough to hold out against their group stage opponents at the World Cup, they could be exposed against higher-level opposition in later stages of the tournament. The defence has held out in recent years, but as age catches up to them, they could be caught out for pace. Recent matches have also shown their struggles against teams that rely on aerial prowess, and that could be a problem for them despite the profusion of height in the team. Their strongest asset is their organisation, but it will be interesting to see if they can bring that to the World Cup.

The Players

For all their attacking talent, it must be said that Poland are well-stacked in goal, and on paper, are bringing arguably the best roster of goalkeepers to the tournament. Their first choice should be Wojciech Szczęsny, who has gone through a strange turn of events to get to this point. The former Arsenal player joined Juventus last summer where he was expected to be the understudy to Gianluigi Buffon. And while that has been the case, his impressive form and injuries to the Italian legends have earned him praise, and he has been one of the Bianconeri’s best players this season, even going on to win the club’s Player of the Month award for December.

As for the other two spots, they are likely to be occupied by Łukasz Fabiański and Łukasz Skorupski. The former, another ex-Arsenal player has gone through a turbulent season domestically with Swansea City, where managerial changes, underperforming players and instability with the board have left the club rooted to the bottom of the Premier League. Skorupski, who plays for Roma, has been the back-up to Alisson, who has easily been one of Europe’s best this season, and that has restricted the Pole to just one appearance this season – a Coppa Italia game.

In a vibrant, relatively young team, Poland can have Serie A to thank for their improvement, and it can be expected that around a third of their roster for the World Cup will contain Serie A-based players. Sampdoria, Serie A’s high flyers who have progressed significantly under coach Marco Giampaolo and sit high in sixth in the table. They’ve had three Polish players who have been really impressive in Serie A this season, and should be on the plane to Russia in the summer: Karol Linetty, Dawid Kownacki and Bartosz Bereszyński.

Linetty, a well-rounded midfielder, is the most likely of the three to get the most minutes. A product of the increasingly-popular Lech Poznań academy, Linetty is the ideal player for Adam Nawałka and his pressing system, as his traits are best utilised in attacking zones for pressing and carrying the ball forward. A solid player on the ball, he is also reliable defensively, but it is in the attacking zones where he can prove to be most effective and it seems almost certain at this point that he will be on most starting team-sheets at the World Cup.

Kownacki and Bereszyński, on the other hand are still adapting to Serie A, with both having joined Sampdoria in January and July 2017 respectively. Kownacki is a bright player will lots of exciting potential. Often compared to superstar compatriot Robert Lewandowski for his technical brilliance and command in the box, he will prove to be a strong support for the Bayern Munich player and could be an effective player coming off the bench. Bereszyński, another one likely to play the role of deputy, has been astute domestically and once again, fits the agenda for Adam Nawałka. Both players are Lech Poznań graduates.

Elsewhere in Serie A, there is the excellent Piotr Zieliński. A player that hasn’t played as much he would’ve liked in Maurizio Sarri’s brilliant Napoli team, Zieliński has proven his quality over the last few months when given the chance. Possessing the innate qualities to carry the ball forward and draw defenders towards him, he is a troublesome player to come up against – one that can create confusion amongst the opposition with his pin-point passing and ability to easily pick out a player. Check out his assist for team-mate Łukasz Piszczek from a World Cup qualifier against Montenegro in March.

For Poland and Nawałka’s aim to get organisation and brute force in midfield, they are going to require an extensive search. Nawałka’s usual go-to man Grzegorz Krychowiak has struggled this season with relegation-battling West Bromwich Albion, and while he is likely to be on the plane to Russia, his won’t be as reliable as he usually is. This would mean that Krzysztof Mączyński, Krychowiak’s usual deputy will have to take centre-stage for the first time in a midfield that contains himself, Karol Linetty and Piotr Zieliński and he has a huge task on his hands to support the defence and be an able player to aid the attack.

In attack, there is no doubt who will take centre-stage. Arguably the best number nine in the world, Robert Lewandowski, gets to announce himself on the grandest stage for the first time. 225 goals across the last seven seasons in all competitions (at the time of writing) for Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, plus 42 international goals – including top scorers’ honours in both European Championships and World Cup qualifying means that he will relish the chance to flaunt his skills at the World Cup. The captain, the most iconic and in a team of youngsters, he will be looked up to for inspiration. This is the stage he deserves.

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Supporting him out wide will be Jakub Błaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki, two mainstays in the side who have been Nawałka’s most trusted soldiers. In what is likely to be their final major international tournaments, they too, like Lewandowski, bring experience and calmness to a team that will need it. And to deputize to Lewandowski, the form and fitness of Arkadiusz Milik will be closely monitored, as he hopes to recover from two career-threatening leg injuries and make his name for the national side following a fine Euro 2016 campaign. He will, of course, get competition from the emerging Dawid Kownacki.

The Prospects

Poland are placed in arguably the most evenly-matched group at the World Cup – Group H, containing Colombia, Senegal and Japan. All four countries have teams with flair and passion, and it is difficult to determine which team will come out on top. Colombia, a bright team that dazzled at the previous World Cup, are most likely to claim top spot in the group, and Senegal are likely to be Poland’s strongest challengers for second place. And with Poland opening their campaign against the African side, and ending it against Japan, the fight for qualification is certain to go down to the wire.

If they do make it through, they have another complicated challenge of coming up against either the winners or runners-up from Group G, which contains Belgium, England, Tunisia and Panama. The latter two are unlikely to make it past that stage, so it will be another exciting clash against either Roberto Martinez or Gareth Southgate’s teams. They have enough in them to pull of a shock, and it will be interesting to see how they set up against such a complex order of opponents. The Polish have improved drastically over the last five years, and the World Cup will provide an accurate measure of their development, and a possible say about their prospects for the future.

Karan Tejwani

Football writer mainly covering the Premier League. Previously featured on the Guardian Sport, VICE Sports and The Football Pink. Senior writer at These Football Times.

Karan Tejwani

Football writer mainly covering the Premier League. Previously featured on the Guardian Sport, VICE Sports and The Football Pink. Senior writer at These Football Times.