Photo: Maciej Baranowski, Wikimedia commons
On Thursday Polish sides suffered a KO in the Europa League third qualifying rounds first legs. Jagiellonia Białystok fought manly but went down to a 1-0 defeat at home to Gent, Lech Poznań were easily beaten 2-0 at Genk and Legia Warsaw suffered a thoroughly embarrassing 2-1 defeat at home to the champions of Luxembourg Dudelange. The Polish football media has seen the evening as a failure of biblical proportions, especially regarding Legia’s humbling to Dudelange. Indeed it seems that many Polish football journalists are heralding the end of the Polish league, for what’s the point if the champions of Poland cannot defeat the champions of tiny Luxembourg? However if we look closer, the picture is slightly more nuanced, more diverse when it comes to the three Polish losses in the week. Quite simply put, Legia’s catastrophic performances should not cast a cloud over the attempts to build of the other two clubs.
As is almost always the case, clubs from capital cities feel the full glare of a country’s sporting press. The reasons for this are quite obvious; most of the main newspapers are located in capital cities, which means that, quite simply, journalistic access to these clubs is the easiest. This is certainly the case when it comes to Legia Warsaw, every home match newspapers and TV and radio stations send hoards of journalists along to Legia games, and, when Legia does well, but especially when Legia does badly, stories about the club dominate the sports pages. Indeed Legia are really the only club in Poland which gets an in-depth media postmortem regarding behind the scenes problems when a managerial change takes place.
On Thursday night Legia performed absolutely terribly at home to Dudelange. They had hardly any shape, showed hardly any desire, were hardly able to keep the ball and looked completely without leadership both on and off the pitch. This, when coupled with their unexpected and gutless exit at the hands of Slovakian champions Spartak Trnava in the Champions League qualifiers, means that Legia are in total crisis. After being eliminated by Spartak, Legia owner Dariusz Mioduski decided to sack their coach Dean Klafurić who himself had only been appointed in April after a series of bad results meant the previous incumbent Romeo Jozak also lost his job.
Indeed, it is easy to paint the picture of Legia as a club which is in constant turmoil. In each of the last three seasons Legia have followed the same pattern. They start the season terribly, sack their manager early, recover and then do just enough to win the league. On the one side their success rate over the last 6 seasons is admirable – they have won the Polish title 5 out of 6 times- but I would argue that, considering the massive budgetary advantage Legia has over its rivals (in 2017 according to Deloitte Legia’s revenue was over twice as much as that of Lech – 32 million Euros to 15 million), it is only just doing what is required. To back this up we can look at the winning margins of Legia over the last three seasons, 3 points in 2015-6, 2 points in 2016-7 and 3 points in 2017-8. Last season Legia especially stuttered, they ended up with a paltry +20 goal difference and lost 11 out of 37 games.
In general Legia seem to be in decline as a club, despite the continued success on the field. Many people point to the poor running of the club of the current owner Dariusz Mioduski. Mioduski initially bought the club at the beginning of 2014 with two other investors, Bogusław Leśnodorski, a lawyer and self-confessed Legia fan possessed with a rather large ego and fellow businessman Maciej Wandzel. The trio eventually fell out in an emotional and public manner and in March 2017 Mioduski bought out the other two to take sole control over Legia. Although Mioduski has charmed many people who didn’t like the rather rash and abrasive way that Lesnodorski ran the club, he has seemed increasingly lost at the top. He has spoken openly of the need for a long-term vision at the club, but then when results have gone wrong, he’s gone completely against this vision and started again, often moving in a totally different direction.
The best example of this was Mioduski’s decision to sack coach and former player and club legend Jacek Magiera in September 2017 after promising that Magiera would have his job for ‘years to come’ several weeks before. Mioduski decided to appoint the Croatian coach Romeo Jozak who was best known for working at Dinamo Zagreb’s famous academy but with no managerial experience at the time. When Jozak’s methods started to hit a rock in the spring of 2018, Mioduski appointed Jozak’s assistant Klafurić in charge as a stop-gap, another coach who had no managerial experience in the men’s game. In the close season Legia made a number of approaches to coaches but, when these failed, Klafurić was appointed full-time. Klafurić guided Legia to the title but, as Legia’s form in early season form again looked very bad, Klafurić was sacked.
Financially Legia also seem to be making bad decision after bad decision. They have become renowned as a club which throws money at players and coaches. Romeo Jozak was being paid 20,000 Euros a month, Klafurić 13,000, but these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. Legia signed Eduardo da Silva in January 2018, yes, that 34 year old Eduardo, and decided to pay him 30,000 Euros a month – he went on to play 10 games in the spring round of matches without scoring a goal. The Brazilian defender Mauricio was loaned from Lazio in January and was paid 40,000 Euros a month, he went on to play only two games. Perhaps the biggest question marks were over two attackers that Legia signed in 2016. The Nigerian striker Daniel Chima Chuwku was paid almost 30,000 Euros a month and played four times for the club before being let go and fellow Nigerian Sadam Sulley, a 19 year old unknown at the time, was getting paid almost 8,000 Euros a month.
To put it simply, there is no real vision at Legia. There does not seem to be any long-term policy, with the main aim seeming to be signing players off rival clubs in the Ekstraklasa to weaken them – vide signing Kasper Hämäläinen in 2016 to weaken Lech Poznań, or the signing of last season’s Ekstraklasa top scorer Carlitos from Wisła Kraków in 2018 (although Wisła Kraków are not really outright rivals of Legia anymore). This is added to by a host of signings which seem to be hastily scouted and do not point to any real plan apart from getting across the line in the league every season.
Many Legia fans seem to be content with this, because, after all they state, do they not continue to win the league? Isn’t that what our aim should be? To counteract these voices I’ll state categorically: no, that isn’t the aim, or at least that shouldn’t be the aim in the long-term. Legia need to sit back and decide what’s most important for them now, winning a relatively poor league every season and then failing in Europe, or spending time to develop a policy which will bring benefits in the long-run. There are many ways to achieve this kind of long-term success, focusing on an academy which can bring through young players which will eventually bring in profits, or planning transfers carefully year after year, making sure that the right kind of player is being brought through the door.
And here’s where we come back to where we came in at the start. Legia’s two main rivals in the Ekstraklasa are clubs which seem to have a plan, granted that plan has not managed to bring in the titles that Legia Warsaw’s fans are so desperate to win at the expense of having a consistent policy, but still they have a plan. The main contender to Legia’s crown is Lech Poznań, the club with easily the second best revenue and budget in the Ekstraklasa. Lech is run in a very different way to Legia. Lech’s strengths as a club are intelligent scouting networks (although these transfers don’t always work out) and the best academy system in the country, which consistently brings through players which bring profits into the clubs coffers. The main criticism of Lech has been their reluctance to spend money on transfers which really improve their side.
In this regard something seems to have snapped in the summer. Lech were in pole position to win the Polish Ekstraklasa in the spring but a catastrophic final 7 games of the season handed the title over to Legia. Their owner Jacek Rutkowski reacted to this disaster by spending the money their fans have demanded for so long. In have come two Portuguese players which seem to have instantly added value to the side, Pedro Tiba for 1 million Euros and João Amaral for a reported 1.5 million Euros. It’s early days in the Polish season so far, and Lech will probably be eliminated by Genk, but they have won their first three Ekstraklasa games of the season. If Lech can combine the intelligent way the academy is being run and add in some big-name transfers every now and again, the club surely deserves success in the future.
The last club to be looked at is the relative newcomers to the top of the Polish game, Jagiellonia Białystok. Jaga’s first Polish top-flight season was as recent as 1987 but it’s only in the last ten years that the club has firmly cemented itself at the top of the Polish game. Their first honours came in 2010 when they won the Polish cup and then the season afterwards they finished fourth in the league. After a number of mid-table finishes the last four seasons have seen success after success for the club from Poland’s north-east. In 2014-5 they came 3rd in the Ekstraklasa and in the last couple of seasons they have finished as runners-up twice. All of this has been achieved with a middling budget for the Polish league, in 2017 according to Deloitte, Jaga was in 7th place in the revenue table in the Ekstraklasa at just under 7 million Euros.
The most impressive element of Jaga’s rise has been the step-by-step approach to the way that President Cezary Kulesza has brought to running the club. Since 2008 Jagiellonia have only had 6 coaches, Legia in the same time period have had 12. Coaches are generally given time in Białystok but they have also been intelligent in the players that they have brought in. There seems to be a profile regarding the players which are to be signed, they tend to be players between the ages of 23 and 27, the idea seemingly being that they are old enough to make an instant impact in the league but also young enough to make money on outgoing transfers for the club. Every season players need to be sold but those that are bought are intelligent additions. One example of this is the Lithuanian winger Arvydas Novikovas, signed in January 2017 for 350,000 Euros. He’s quickly become one of the stars of the league and, at 27, will still allow Jaga to make a profit in the future.
Jaga also are slowly making their mark in European competitions, granted this is not at the level of Legia or even Lech but they are slowly building a name for themselves. In just their fourth European season ever they were able to knock out the Portguese side Rio Ave in the Europa League second round qualifiers and really gave Gent a good match on Thursday before falling to a late sucker-punch of a goal on the break.
All of this suggests that there are slow shoots of growth developing in Poland, away from the toxic glare of Legia Warsaw. But to improve things further I’d argue that Legia need to not win the title this season, for the sake of the league and even for themselves. For me, one of either Jaga or Lech need to win and the reason for this is simple. It will show that the future way forward in Polish football is that of clubs that are well-run, with vision, not ones that are cobbled together for instant success without thinking of what comes next. Also it will push Legia, Poland’s flagship club, whether you like it or not, to pull their finger out and take radical steps to get their ship in order. Unfortunately in all likelihood, Legia’s financial might and the psychological weaknesses of their challengers, means that they will probably win the league again this season. But I don’t think that would be a good thing.