Poland’s first two Euro 2020 qualifiers are behind us. Poland got away with two wins, first beating Austria 1-0 in Vienna and then defeating Latvia 2-0 in Warsaw. What have we learnt from the two games?
1) Poland’s individual strengths should be easily good enough to get them out of the group
In both of the two games Poland’s system was certainly not a strong point, neither was their fluency. What stood out was their individual talents who play at clubs from top 5 leagues. Lewandowski, Zieliński, Piątek and others provided moments of class which brightened up rather dour games. Poland are in a relatively (some might say very) easy group, with the most heralded side apart from them being Austria (who have lost their first two games). All Poland need to do is finish in the top two, which shouldn’t be very difficult. The question is whether their coach Jerzy Brzęczek is able to develop a workable system which gets the best out of these talents next summer in the finals. But we won’t know that for a while yet.
2) Lewandowski is an excellent player
This point is a little disingenuous. We’ve known that Lewandowski is a international/world class player for a long time. However sometimes his greatness is taken for granted, you expect it to be there, so when it isn’t you feel that’s something lacking. This has been the case in the last 8 games where Lewandowski didn’t score for the national side.
In the World Cup Lewandowski was isolated up front, provided with hardly any service and looked a dejected figure in the Nations League games in the summer/autumn. Against lower-level opposition Lewandowski’s talent comes out though. In the Austria game, Lewandowski looked great in a deeper role behind Krzysztof Piątek later in the match, creating a wonderful chance which Piątek missed, and in the Latvia game it was not just about his opening goal but he was the warm, cosy centre the Polish side revolved around. It was really nice to see him in this kind of form for the international side once more.
3) Jerzy Brzęczek is still finding his feet as National team coach
Brzęczek was always going to have a difficult job replacing Adam Nawałka who brought considerable success to the national team during his time in the position. The Euro 2016 quarter-finals and even World Cup qualification (despite the poor performances in the finals) can be seen as a success considering how often Poland has appeared on the big stage over the last 30 years. Brzęczek took over a national team that was ageing, with some of its main stars out of form.
In the Nations League he experimented with formations including a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-1-2. Poland were outclassed in both their home games vs Portugal and Italy – they were dominated in the centre of the pitch and looked messy in defence. As a result of that he has made the decision to go back to basics and in both qualifying matches he went with a 4-4-2. It didn’t look particularly fluid but it’s no shame to adapt and try to work out what’s the best system to go forward with. I’d expect him to continue with this formation until the end of the qualifiers with minor modifications here and there.
Perhaps the biggest issue with Brzęczek though is with his self-confidence. He clearly doesn’t seem very confident with the media. He needs to go with his inner voice more and he could still achieve success with this squad.
4) Arkadiusz Reca is not a bad player
One of the biggest controversies surrounding the international break has revolved around the call-up and eventual playing of Arkadiusz Reca, the Atalanta left-back who has hardly played for the Italian club this season. In terms of public opinion the main issue is the fact that Reca played for Brzęczek’s former club Wisła Płock, with people claiming this is the only reason Reca is in the squad. There was a considerable amount of anger that Reca played vs Latvia after Bartosz Bereszyński was ruled out with a virus. Reca though stuck it to the haters with a very nice run and cross that produced the goal for Robert Lewandowski. He didn’t play perfectly but had a solid game on the whole.
But if we look a bit wider here, who do people think should play in his place? Poland historically has had problems with the left-back position and at Euro 2016 they played a rather immobile centre-back (Artur Jędrzejczyk) at left-back. The default left-back recently has been Maciej Rybus who is basically a left-back who can’t defend (see his performance at Kazakhstan in the World Cup qualifying match in September 2016). Is it such a tragedy to play a 23 year old up and coming player like Reca in a problem position, someone who Brzęczek trusts? To my mind not at all.
5) Poland is lucky to have Krzysztof Piątek
Rewind back to last summer, Poland was feeling exceptionally negative about the future after their performances at the World Cup Finals. Commentators saw endings everywhere, and perhaps the greatest worries revolved around an ageing Robert Lewandowski. What would Poland do when he eventually hung up his boots, how would they cope? Piątek’s rise from relative obscurity has, at least partly allayed those fears.
Piątek has a long way to go to reach Lewandowski’s level, and there’s a very good chance he never will, but Piątek is slowly developing into a presence on the international stage to add to his growing stature in the club game. His goal vs Austria was nothing special, a striker’s finish, but he seemed to strike up a good understanding with Lewandowski. Lewandowski playing deeper to Piątek’s classic number 9 could extend Lewandowski’s shelf-life. Similarly with Piątek around there could be less pressure on Arkadiusz Milik to perform for the national team. Milik has often been the subject of criticism for his missed chances. Basically it’s good to have Piątek around.