“I don’t get what all the fuss is about, this will be how it is from now on”.
One swallow may not make a summer, and by the time that the above quote was uttered from a fan in one of the many packed bars along Warsaw’s Aleje Jerozolimskie, a fair few piwos may have been sunk; but if Polish fans can’t be afforded a little drink-fuelled arrogance after defeating the World Champions, when else can they be?
It wasn’t just that Poland had defeated a team who lifted the World Cup trophy a mere three months previously, but that they defeated their biggest rival, and for the first time in their history. They may have been outplayed for large parts of the game, and faced a constant barrage of attacks, however a performance of grit and determination proved more than a match for any possession or shots statistics.
Led by a Wojciech Szczęsny performance reminiscent of that of Jan Tomaszewski at Wembley in 1973, Saturday’s performance has given Poland a sense of pride in their national team that has been missing for a while. It was a performance which they are not used to seeing, with disappointment and frustration usually the residing feelings surrounding international breaks. A long way from the teams of 1974 and 1982, which both finished in third place at the World Cup, the current crop has up until now largely been seen as a collection of strong individuals rather than a strong team.
Leading up to the qualifying campaign, coach Adam Nawałka had also come under fire, with his squad rotation regarded as something as a joke. Coming on late in the game against Germany, goalscorer Sebastian Mila became the 56th player to wear the White Eagle during Nawałka’s 11-month reign; and with friendly defeats to Scotland and Slovakia, there were calls from some quarters for the ex-Górnik Zabrze coach to be dismissed before he’d even taken charge of a competitive game.
Yet fast forward seven months on from their friendly defeat to Gordon Strachan’s side, and the pessimism amongst Polish fans has disappeared almost overnight. The tinkering amongst his squad that could have so easily proved his downfall, is now seemingly paying dividends. He may have actually built a team – something that previous bosses have failed to do.
“I think that something has happened in our team, and in this meeting we have formed a collective” said midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak after their shock victory. “It was visible on the pitch – cooperation made us happy. If I see that a teammate runs for 50 metres to win the ball, I want to do the same for him… There is no secret – the talent and skills were on the German side, however We responded aggressively and collectively”.
It is a change of setup rather than style which has given Nawałka his successful start to the qualifying campaign. Despite a return to a 4-4-2 formation, which served previous coaches Waldemar Fornalik and Franciszek Smuda so badly, the current ‘Selekcjoner’ has not decided to change the philosophy of the team.
Unlike his predecessors, Nawałka aims to employ a the counter-attacking style used previously in the 4-2-3-1, rather than trying to control and attack like the tactics with which they had struggled. With a dogged defence, and ball-winning midfielders, the Poles aim to spread the ball to their fast wingers Maciej Rybus and Kamil Grosicki, or even Dortmund’s attacking full-back Łukasz Piszczek, who can then cut inside, or provide a dangerous cross. It was the latter which helped to give them the second half lead against their neighbours.
However it is the addition of the second striker which sees the Poles a much more dangerous threat than in their previous guise. As a lone striker, Lewandowski was often marked out of games, and struggled to create. When he did receive the ball, he was either crowded out, or forced to do too much, with teammates not able to join in with the play quickly enough.
With the extra man up-front, Defences are no longer able to concentrate on only Lewandowski, and if they do decide that is the best way to nullify Poland as it had been before, they now face the threat of another man who can be equally as dangerous as the Bayern Munich hitman. Enter, Arkadiusz Milik.
Signing for Polish club Górnik Zabrze at the age of seventeen, Nawałka has been hugely influential on Milik’s relatively-young career. After gently introducing him into the first team back in 2011, by the time he left the club 18 months later, he had already become their star.
Now on loan at Ajax, after a relatively unsuccessful year-and-a-half in Germany, his stock continues to increase. Strong performances, including a six-goal haul in a recent Dutch a Cup game, have helped to endear himself to the Amsterdam fans; while nine goals in eight Poland U21 appearances suggest that he is well on his way to becoming a star. Saturday’s opener against the Germans was just a glimpse of how much of a threat he can be for the senior team, and his blossoming partnership with ‘Lewy’ could potentially become one of the most dangerous in international football.
The Polish side however isn’t without its weaknesses, and the most glaringly obvious of those comes at the left-back position. Long a problem which Polish managers have failed to solve, numerous options have been tested, and almost all have struggled.
Number one-and-two during the reigns of Smuda and Fornalik, Sebastian Boenisch and Jakub Wawrzyniak had long been battling to secure the starting berth on the left-side of defence. However their seemingly-constant rotation in the pecking order was down to poor performances rather than good ones.
Wawrzyniak took the spot after Boenisch was released from Werder Bremen in the summer of 2012, only to relinquish it following a high-profile mistake in their 2-2 World Cup qualifying draw in Moldova. Boenisch quickly handed it back, after allowing San Marino’s Allessandro Della Valle a free header to score his country’s first goal in five years.
Under the stewardship of both Fornalik and Nawałka, other options have been tested, with right-back Grzegorz Wojtkowiak, and a handful of domestic-based players showing they are not quite up to the required standard. Nawałka has now seemingly arrived at the conclusion that, despite their flaws, Boenisch (who will miss the meeting with Scotland through injury) and Wawrzyniak are still the strongest he has for the position.
While the nation has a spring in its step following their first win over Germany in 19 attempts, the majority know that Scotland will be an altogether different proposition. Motivation will not be as easy to come by as it was against their most bitter rivals, and Nawałka has to work hard to ensure that his team keep their feet on the ground ahead of what is arguably a more important game, against a direct rival for the second automatic qualifying spot.
“My team is mentally and physically prepared. I talked to them on Sunday, and by that point they were already prepared to play against Scotland” said Nawałka in Monday’s pre-match press conference.
“I believe that an even harder and more important match awaits us with the Scots” proclaimed Krychowiak after Saturday’s heroics. “They are an adversary with whom we are fighting for the same goal.
“I believe that Germany, despite their failure against us, are still are strong favorites in our group. If we do not win on Tuesday, a victory against the Germans will not matter so much”.
If the Biało-Czerwone can show half as much heart than they did in their last outing, they will be confident of extending their 100% record.
Predicted line-up: Szczęsny – Piszczek, Glik Szukała, Wawrzyniak – Grosicki, Krychowiak, Mączyński, Rybus – Milik, Lewandowski.
Written by Ryan Hubbard | ekstraklasareview.wordpress.com