It seemed to come completely out of the blue. Poland, a side that had stormed through the Euro 2016 qualifiers, made it to the quarter finals of the main tournament, qualified again easily for the World Cup, in the top 10 in the world rankings, blessed with world class players like Robert Lewandowski, have somehow tumbled out of the World Cup with a whimper not a bang, totally devoid of any of the qualities that have been their trademark over the last four years or so. How did this disaster happen?
When Poland did so well in the last Euros, their side was based around a mixture of experienced players (Lewandowski, Piszczek, Błaszczykowski, Glik), players making their way to the top (Krychowiak) and promising young players (Kapustka and Milik). What’s most important is that all of these players were in form at the time. This provided Nawałka (even with a relatively thin squad) with a core of players which he could rely on to produce consistent performances.
In the last Euros Nawałka also had a formation which suited his way of approaching the game. Nawałka has always been a quite conservative coach who doesn’t like to take risks, and that was one of the main criticisms of him at Euro 2016, that Poland’s play wasn’t free-flowing enough, that there wasn’t enough interplay between the attacking players. But Nawałka stuck to his 4-4-1-1 formation like glue, believing it was the best one to get the best out of the players that Poland had at its disposal.
In the last couple of years, despite strong performances in the World Cup qualifiers (although in what can be now seen as a relatively weak group) the glue started to come unstuck. Some of Poland’s core players were struck by injuries (Błaszczykowski, Milik, Piszczek), others have been in and out of first teams (Krychowiak), others have not made it at top level football (Kapustka) and some are heading into their dotage (Błaszczykowski and Piszczek were born in 1985). Suddenly players which played so impressively in France could not be relied on in the same way.
As the World Cup approached Nawałka, evidently noticing the diminished capabilities of the players that had been so key to his success, decided to experiment with a back-up formation. Instead of a 4-4-1-1 Poland would instead try out a 3-4-3 formation. Poland’s games in their qualification group were characterised by all-out attack (28 goals scored) but also messy defensive play (14 goals conceded). In that respect it made sense for Nawałka to mix things up and try something different.
Then came the World Cup. After all the experimentation and the general expectation that Poland would head out in a 3-4-3 formation, Nawałka decided to return to his tried and tested 4-4-1-1 that had worked so well at Euro 2016. In were all the players that had been his lieutenants on the pitch, Milik – despite not looking really in form since coming back from his ACL injury, Błaszczykowski who has only played 94 minutes of club football since November 2017, Krychowiak who has been thoroughly criticised for his attitude while West Brom sank to relegation in the premier league. It didn’t work.
Poland looked bereft of creativity, bereft of energy, bereft of anything that they had possessed two years ago as they went down to a 2-1 defeat. The stat that really stood out was that Lewandowski and Milik only exchanged ONE pass between themselves in the 73 minutes that Milik was on the pitch. It was a disaster, and the mistake that sealed Senegal’s win as Krychowiak hoofed the ball back to his own keeper, Bednarek misjudged the ball and Szczęsny rushed out messily will be shown again and again on World Cup clangers compilations.
After the failure to beat a rather average Senegal Nawałka decided to revert to a 3-4-3 for the Colombia match making four changes in a desperate attempt to win and keep Poland in the tournament. Poland showed a lot more energy than they did vs Senegal but also a total lack of quality with Robert Lewandowski cutting an isolated and dejected figure up front. Colombia were simply too good for Poland on the night as they completed pass after pass and Poland tried to hit long balls up to the front men. Nawałka’s decision to shake things up had failed completely as Poland were easily defeated 3-0 to send them tumbling out of the tournament.
So could all of this been foreseen? When we look closely, yes. Nawałka’s core players who had brought him success were simply not as good as they had been two years ago. Nawałka also compounded the problem by not deciding on a system and sticking with it, too seemingly desirous was he to resurrect the spirit of 2016 when it was just not there anymore. Maybe Poland’s players were simply not the world-beaters most commentators thought they were?
Whatever the reasons this defeat hurts, and hurts bad. And this is mainly due to the aura that seemed to surround Nawałka’s reign as Polish coach. Suddenly Poland was able to win the games that previously they’d not been given a chance in – all starting with the famous win over Germany in October 2014 in Euro 2016 qualifying. The light-hearted giddiness of the last 4 years has well and truly vanished into a dark midsummer’s night. It might be a long time before Poland sees its like again.