by Ryan Hubbard (Twitter – Web)
It doesn’t seem that long ago when Poland were predictable: get the ball down the right-hand side through Błaszczykowski and Piszczek, give it to Lewandowski and let him do the rest. If a defence could neutralise the then-Dortmund striker, there was usually a chance they could come away with at least a share of the spoils. This was proven by Russia and Czech Republic in Euro 2012; as well as Montenegro, Moldova and Ukraine in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
But for Thursday’s opposition Scotland, and Ireland on Sunday, it will not be so simple. Unlike the teams of Waldemar Fornalik and Franciszek Smuda, Adam Nawałka’s squad are no longer one-dimensional and lopsided – and as a result are possibly the best group since that which finished third in the 1982 World Cup.
There are still undoubtedly weak areas: the left-back spot, which in recent games has been occupied by winger Maciej Rybus; and the second central-midfield position alongside Grzegorz Krychowiak, usually taken by Wisła Kraków’s Krzysztof Mączyński; however it could be argued that all over the pitch – even in the two aforementioned areas – the team is at its strongest for years.
There are a number of factors at play, the most obvious of which being that star striker Robert Lewandowski is currently in the richest vein of form of his career. The Bayern Munich hitman has scored an amazing 12 goals in his last four outings – a mind-boggling goal every 27 minutes – including a five-goal haul in a nine-minute spell after coming on as a sub against VfL Wolfsburg. His tally for the national team is almost as equally impressive, with six of his ten goals during the qualifying campaign coming in his last three appearances.
Before this campaign, Lewy had been in dire form for the ‘Reprezentacja’, and there were even some calls for his to be dropped by former coach Fornalik. But without a proper replacement, Lewy kept his place as the Poles failed to make it to Brazil. Nawałka though has been gifted with the emergence of young striker Arkadiusz Milik – a player he himself brought into Poland’s Ekstraklasa with Górnik Zabrze over four years ago. Nawałka didn’t see Milik as a potential replacement though, and instead brought the youngster in to compliment his star man Lewandowski. It worked too: switching to a 4-4-2 which had been unsuccessfully tried by the previous two coaches, opposition defences are forced to now focus their attention to two striker instead of one. If defenders are instructed to double-up on Lewandowski, it allows Milik – himself on seven goals for the campaign – the space to punish them; but try to spread the focus, and one of the pairing will usually have enough quality to cause damage.
Although former captain Jakub Błaszczykowski had missed over a year of action for the Białe-Orły, it could too be argued that his absence has helped to strengthen the team. While in the most recent internationals his quality has shone, less focus on the Polish right side (coupled too with the occasional injury to Łukasz Piszczek) has led to a more balanced starting line-up. The accession of both centre-back Kamil Glik and central midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak, now two of the most-coveted players in Europe, has also helped to shift the balance to the spine of the team.
Poland’s right-sided strength under Fornalik (first image) compared to the stronger-spined team under Nawałka (second image).
It is also a selection of players in form at club level, rather than being selected by name alone. Nawałka has shown that he is not afraid to leave out bigger names if they are under-performing, provided there is someone waiting in the wings. After Błaszczykowski’s injury, Nawałka refused to even select him for the squad to face Ireland in Dublin citing his lack of match-fitness, despite his inclusion being expected by many. There has also been the omission of Mateusz Klich, who had performed well on loan at PEC Zwolle, but had been struggling to break back into the team at parent club Wolfsburg. A regular under Fornalik, Klich has now not appeared in the Polish White-and-Red since their opening qualifier against Gibraltar over a year ago, and Nawałka has opted to turn towards the Ekstraklasa pair of Tomasz Jodłowiec and Krzysztof Mączyński instead.
Should World Champions Germany, as expected, pick up something from their trip to face Ireland, a win in Glasgow for Nawałka’s men will be enough for them to qualify for their third successive European Championships. Having been held to a 2-2 draw in Warsaw twelve months ago, the Poles will be under no illusions how difficult Thursday night will be, leading Nawałka to publicly state that his squad his squad must also bear in mind that they still have another game to play against Ireland.
But currently on the crest of a wave, a fresh Poland – one not left fatigued by the Herculean effort put into a game three days earlier, as was the first meeting between the two – will have the confidence that they are not only able to qualify at the earliest attempt, but to go on and make waves in France next summer.