Why Poland will be a danger at the 2018 World Cup

Nathan Ridley on why he feels Poland could be a surprise package at this year’s World Cup in Russia.

Since their impressive qualifying runs from 2014 onwards, Poland have established themselves as one of Europe’s most feared International outfits. Set to face Colombia, Japan and Senegal in Group F, their power could be shown as early as the opening week in June. Despite the obvious star man taking much of the limelight, what has cemented Adam Nawalka’s team at the top of many dark horse lists ahead of the world’s most illustrious tournament in Russia this summer? Let’s take a look.

Keeping it simple

Usually operating in a 4-4-2 formation most of the time, each player is given a designated role in the system. 

Poland are renowned for their goalscoring prowess and it's no surprise as up front, fit-again after two ACL injuries in the past 2 seasons, Arkadiusz Milik (Napoli) drops deep for the ball and uses his intricate footwork between the lines to create chances on the right of the pitch due to his preferred left foot. Along with him, the high-intensity wingers Jakub Blaszczykowski [VfL Wolfsburg] and Kamil Grosicki [Hull City] use their tenacity up & down the flanks to both help out tracking back and to create chances on the break, often for their physical focal point; Robert Lewandowski - who has 51 goals in 91 caps and was the European top goalscorer of the qualifying campaign. It's also not rare for the Bayern Munich man to drop deep himself and battle against opponents when his team are under the cosh and sometimes provide Milik with opportunities. However, target-man Lukasz Teodorczyk is consistently scoring for RSC Anderlecht and could be utilised at some point (as could fellow strikers David Kownacki [Sampdoria] and Mariusz Stepilski [Chievo Verona on loan from FC Nantes and Jakub Swierczok [Ludogorets Razgrad] and Kamil Wilczek [Brøndby] who offer physicality). 

Those aforementioned wingers aid the full backs who enjoy to push forward but are sharp to maintain their shape at the back. Most likely, Lukasz Piszczek of Borussia Dortmund (who is nearing 10 years at the club) will play on the right and on the left, the inverted Artur Jedrzejczyk [Legia Warsaw] or the more attacking Maciej Rybus [Lokomotiv Moscow] are set to battle it out. Whoever features, they epitomise the team's philosophy when playing - discipline (with no Poland player being sent off during their last two qualifying campaigns). 

The most integral part of the team is the midfield pairing of Grzegorz Krychowiak [West Brom, on-loan from PSG] and Krzysztof Maczynski [Legia Warsaw] however the quality shown by Piotr Zielinski (a rumoured Liverpool target) for Napoli this season means he surely must start somewhere in the team: more so than other fringe men like Teodorczyk.

In addition, brutish centre backs Kamil Glik (who has been recently rumoured to retire from International duties after the tournament despite being just 30) and Michal Pazdan [Legia Warsaw] have built a formidable partnership over the last few years with no real pressure to be dropped. Whether they're in front of Lukasz Fabianski [Swansea] or Wojciech Szczesny [Juventus] the no-nonsense style from both mean not playing out from the back is worthwhile - as they can be exposed at times as a pair without cover ahead or outside of them on the counter attack.

Formation rotation

In the absence of Milik during most of 2017, boss Nawalka opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation which swapped out the Napoli striker for a Napoli midfielder. It left Lewandowski isolated up top giving him more work to do but once Krychowiak was back in the fold in the midfield pairing (following exile due to not featuring much for PSG at all last season) the team drastically improved as stability came about, with Zielinski roaming forward more and the likes of Maczynski and Karol Linetty [Sampdoria] could breathe easy in the middle of the park. Also, it gave more license to the wingers in Blaszczykowski and Grosicki, who chipped in with goals and assists throughout the calendar year. 

Also, a 3-5-2 formation has been tested in recent outings and may be flirted with further before the team travels to Russia. With Glik central in the back trio, Piszczek - or even Thiago Cionek [SPAL] - on the right and Marcin Kaminski [VfB Stuttgart] or Pazdan (nicknamed 'Kung-Fu Pazdan' by fans due to his rash challenges in the air) on the left, it incorporates a more progressive style of play but might just be a step too far for the squad in time for the World Cup. Piszczek or Blaszczykowski would play as the right wing back and Grosicki or Rybus as the left wing back (showing where it could be difficult to squeeze reliable players in). It does leave the midfield pairing with less responsibility whilst allowing for a creative number 10 type of player such as Zielinski to play possibly with Linetty behind him next to Krychowiak. The system would mean less work and more service for both Milk and Lewandowski which, after the pair's slight nerves at EURO 2016, may convince Nawalka to try the formation out.

Depth development

As eluded to prior, the team selection is no longer an easy one for Nawalka. Since the last two International tournaments Poland have been involved in, a huge influx of talent has risen up with youth on their side but also seasoned men to show them the ropes - although, none of the expected squad will have featured in their last World Cup in 2006.

In between the posts, the battle between the reliable Fabianski and Szczesny is as mouth-watering as the contrasting club lives of each, and their equally contrasting keeping styles makes the decision Nawalka has on his hands even harder. At Euro 2016, the then on-loan Roma man Szczesny was given the nod despite not playing as much in qualifying but was injured for the next match in which Fabianski impressed in and kept his place. More goalkeepers such as Bartosz Bialkowski [Ipswich] and current Roma youngster Lukasz Skorupski are in contention too but are unlikely to feature. Euro 2012 hero Przemyslaw Tyton [Deportivo de La Coruña] isn’t likely to be given a place in the squad too as he hasn’t impressed since his magical introduction when Szczesny was sent off in the opening outing of that short-lived home campaign.

In the back line, versatility is in abundance with left and right-footed players who can operate on either side of the defence whether it be out wide or in the middle. It’s clear Piszczek will be first choice at right back but Bartosz Bereszynski [Legia Warsaw] and Tomasz Kedzoira [Dynamo Kyiv] are there to play back-up. At left back, Jedrejczyk, Rybus and Pawel Jaroszynski [Chievo Verona]. The centre back competition has already been mentioned but with Glik (who started his career at Real Madrid) and Pazdan’s solidity, it’s arguably the least competitive area other than up front, but has similar competition to the strikers with the aforementioned Cionek, Kaminski and even Bartosz Salamon [SPAL] eager to play.

Out wide, Euro 2016 starlet Bartosz Kapustka is nowhere near the senior squad, on-loan from Leicester City at SC Freiburg, but with Blaszczykowski injured at present, players such as Maciej Makuszewski [Lech Poznan], Slawomir Peszko [Legia Warsaw] and QPR man Pawel Wszolek offer decent competition, although they will not stand much chance if the Wolfsburg winger is fit in time for June.

Numerous Ekstraklasa (the Polish top-flight division) players are also well within their rights to occupy a place whilst they’re on top back home. In the most recent squad for the upcoming friendlies against Nigeria and South Korea, Nawalka gave contentious call-ups to a number of native League players which sparked some debate amongst fans.

Recent results (the content underdog)

Since the failed 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, Poland have lost 0 home games and just 2 away games. With Russia being close to home and their ever-passionate fans being present, they're arguably the most well-suited side other Russia at the tournament geographically). Therefore with those results, it’s no surprise that their FIFA World Ranking managed to jump from 76 in 2013 to 5 in 2017. Beating Germany 2-0 at the PGE Narodowy in Warsaw during the qualification campaign sparked the hope that the future was bright for Poland and they showed at Euro 2016 how deadly they can be, never losing at any point during the competition as they were knocked out in the quarter-final by Portugal on penalties. 

Their sharp, counter attacking style suits playing against more possession-focused opponents as they quickly win the ball to make significant use of it and relax into a solid shape when the ball isn’t at their feet. Most teams concentrate on stopping Lewandowski (which is hard enough in itself), this allowing any other player to slip in and damage them - evidently displayed by the only relatively recent consistent starters Grosicki and Milik’s decent goal tallies of 11 and 12 respectively. The teams they’re set to face in Russia are all on a similar level to them overall and will be confident of going through into the knockout stages, likely facing England or Belgium, which are usually dominant teams that could easily be outsmarted by Nawalka and his Polish squad.

Do you think Poland can forge a surprise campaign this summer or is it too far of a stretch? 

Posted by Nathan Ridley

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