For large parts of his eleven month reign, Adam Nawałka has been criticised by parts of the Polish press for his side’s performances in friendly games, as well as his erratic squad selections. But with a historic victory of great rivals Germany he has written his name into annals of Polish football, and if he can follow it up with a victory against Scotland in Warsaw tonight, is he proving that he had a plan all along?
It is well documented that, after coming on late in the game against Germany, Sebastian Mila became the 56th player used by Nawałka in less than a year. To add to that, he has also called up a further 11 players who have not played, taking the total to a mind-boggling 67.
Yet with the beginning of Poland’s Euro 2016 Qualifying campaign, we have seen a more settled side – Mateusz Klich’s omission from the squad for this week’s games being the only major talking point. Klich’s lack of playing time at Wolfsburg was enough to see him dumped in place of Tomasz Jodłowiec – a decision that either of Nawałka’s two predecessors may not necessarily have made.
Nine of the side which kicked off against Gibraltar were in the line-up against Germany (Paweł Olkowski was replaced by Łukasz Piszczek, who had missed the trip to Faro through injury), and with Jodłowiec ruled out, ten of that side are expected to take to the field against Scotland.
Yet the most noticeable change from the previous two regimes is that Nawałka has seemingly learned how to play a 4-4-2 formation.
Switching from the 4-2-3-1 regularly operated has been something tried on numerous occasions in recent years, with the 2-2 draw in Moldova under Fornalik one of the recent examples of when it failed. Trying to control the game, and play straight-up attacking football caused exposure to a fragile defence.
Nawałka however has realised that his team operate better when playing on the counter-attack, with fast wide players, and full-backs who are more than adept at steaming down the wings, and incorporated this into his 4-4-2. He also has at his disposal ball-playing central midfielders such as Grzegorz Krychowiak, who can anchor, yet still contribute to attacking play when required.
Although lucky to not concede against the Germans, they operated to this game plan with great effect. A Herculean defensive effort prevented the German attack; and when, sensing blood they committed more men forward, they were occasionally left exposed by quick Polish breaks.
But Nawałka’s main success so far is to have found someone who can play alongside Robert Lewandowski.
In the 4-2-3-1 formation, Lewandowski was regularly left isolated and marked out of games. Often frustrated, disengaged, Lewy’s record of one goal from open play in almost 18 months spoke for itself. However, in Arkadiusz Milik, the Bayern hitman has found someone who looks more like a strike partner.
Since joining Nawałka at Górnik Zabrze as a seventeen year-old, Arkadiusz Milik’s rise to prominence has been impressive. By the time he left for Germany a year-and-a-half later, the team has practically been built for him. Now after unsuccessful spells at Bayer Leverkusen and Augsburg, he is demonstrating at Ajax Amsterdam the reasons he had been branded as the “New Lubański”.
In the national team, the presence of a striker as dangerous and active as Milik, leaves opposition defenders unable to double-up on Lewandowski. This in turn allows space for Lewandowski to play in, and makes Poland a much more dangerous team.
So far, besides the opening 45 minutes of their game with Gibraltar, when the opposition weren’t attacking enough to enable Poland to counter, Nawałka’s tactics have worked well.
Poland’s win on Saturday leaves Scotland three points behind both of their direct rivals for second place in the group, and could see them play a more attacking game at the Narodowy. They may not realise it, but if they do so, they could be playing right into Polish hands.
Poland v Scotland kicks off at 20:45 CET, at the Stadion Narodowy in Warsaw.