A (foreign) eye on the Ekstraklasa: Interview with Ben Stebbings of Football Radar

The Ekstraklasa doesn’t get many non-Polish viewers and many Poles would say that’s a good thing, such is the negativity surrounding the domestic league here.  But there are some foreign watchers (including yours truly) and they often are far more positive about the Ekstraklasa than Poles themselves.  I spoke to one relatively new Ekstraklasa observer, Ben Stebbings, who covers the league for the Football analysis company, Football Radar, to get his opinions on the Polish top tier, its players and who he tips for success this season.

Hi Ben, Can you tell me a little bit about your job and what you do for Football Radar?

Sure. I work as a Polish Football Analyst for Football Radar (a London based modelling and statistics company). I research everything relevant to the teams in the Polish Ekstraklasa and watch and analyse every league, cup and European game my assigned teams play. My research and analysis enables the company to fully understand how all of the teams in the Ekstraklasa are performing on a game by game basis.

Had you watched any of the Polish league before covering it? What (if any) were your preconceptions about it?

I had watched a couple of games from earlier in the season before being assigned the league, but in general I knew very little about it. I could probably have named about four or five teams offhand (Legia Warsaw, Lech Poznań, Wisła Kraków etc) and pronounced even fewer correctly (that’s still something I’m struggling with). I went into it excited but expecting a lower standard of football. Also flares. I expected a lot of flares.

What do you think of the general standard of the league? Has anything surprised you?

The league has definitely turned out to be a higher standard than I was expecting; and I mean that in terms of all teams in the Ekstraklasa, not just the top ones.

More than anything it’s exciting! The old cliche of anyone being able to beat anyone that the Premier League wears like a badge of honour definitely applies here. Every club has at least one player who can turn a game with a moment of magic (okay, almost every club, but there’s still time for someone to become that player at Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biała and Korona Kielce).

How would you compare the standard of the league to the English league system?

The English league has an excess of talent all the way down the league system. It makes for a a great spectacle but it also means there isn’t much space for player growth, especially young homegrown players. Poland may not be as strong, but it’s competitive, and it’s great to see so many young players being given a chance to flourish all the way down the league.

I know this is through necessity for the most part, as star players are stolen away by bigger teams and younger players have to fill the void, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting to see Ruch Chorzów, for instance, playing with a midfield containing Patryk Lipski, Maciej Urbańczyk and Kamil Mazek.

I think the level of play is around Championship (second tier English) standard – especially since several Ekstraklasa players were linked to or moved to Championship clubs this summer (Kuciak to Hull was a strong rumour, Malarczyk obviously went to Ipswich etc). Clearly there are some cases where Ekstraklasa players are are a bit above that standard; Ondrej Duda and Karol Linetty wouldn’t be turning out for Preston and Rotherham for instance but in general I think it’s a comparison that holds up.

Lipski

Young Patryk Lipski has burst onto the scene for Ruch Chorzów this season

Who are the standout players/teams in the league in your opinion?

There’s so many team and players that have captured my interest it’s hard to know where to start.

Piast Gliwice are the team on everyone’s lips at the moment so let’s start there. It’s great watching players like Patrik Mráz and Martin Nešpor do their stuff but equally interesting is watching coach Radoslav Látal tinkering his formations. In a league where most teams play a modified version of 4-5-1, Piast stand out as being a club that is willing to tailor their lineup to counter their opponent and that flexibility definitely seems to have helped them this season.

Elsewhere, Konstantin Vassiljev is a master conductor for Jagiellonia Białystok while Jacek Góralski (whose name Google translates as Highlander – ‘there can only be one’) seems to have handled the step up to the Ekstraklasa really well.

Pogoń Szczecin have a team full of muscle and power; Adam Frączczak, Rafał Murawski, Łukasz Zwolinski – it’s always a joy watching those players when they click.

Wisła have the erratic Wilde Donald Guerrier who seems to play purely on instinct, Cracovia have the much-hyped Bartosz Kapustka, Zagłębie Lubin have Krzysztof Janus. The list goes on.

Oh, and Lech and Legia have some half-decent players as well I suppose, although Lech are doing their best to keep that hidden.

Bartosz Kapustka’s excellent solo goal against Korona Kielce

Who do you think will win the league this season? Who will get relegated?

As things stand, Legia still look best placed to win the league (boring answer I know) and I expect when they fall out of the Europa League, and injury and fatigue become less of a problem, they will start finding more consistency. But this is my first season watching the Ekstraklasa so I haven’t yet experienced the wonder of the end of season Championship and Relegation rounds and I’m looking forward to seeing how this might shake things up late in the season.

If not Legia, Pogoń look good, but every week they seem to have a new injury problem.

In terms of relegation candidates, despite getting a win this week Podbeskidzie look a shambles, Korona don’t seem to know how to do anything other than defend, and the bubble has to burst with Termalica at some point doesn’t it?…doesn’t it?…

Is there anything about the way the league presents itself (in terms of marketing) that could be improved to attract an international audience?

I think it becomes hard to market a league without some sort of success in Europe from its biggest teams, and it’s obvious already this season just how hard it is for a club to manage a squad that can compete in both Europe and at home, so it becomes a Catch-22 situation.

I can’t offer any concrete answers to this problem but the league is exciting, competitive and has its own unique flavour, so any new viewers it can attract are unlikely to be disappointed.

Thanks to Ben for talking to us, you can follow him here.

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