Piast Gliwice defend a corner at Lechia Gdańsk
Photo: Tomek R
It’s been a topsy-turvy season in the Ekstraklasa, but this is no surprise in one of the most unpredictable of Europe’s top tiers, with the only predictable thing being that Legia Warsaw could very well creep across the line while not really impressing. All campaign long the ‘story of the season’ has been the exploits of Lechia Gdańsk, who survived relegation last season by a mere three points. Lechia have been excellent defensively, if a little too reliant on their Slovakian goalkeeper Dušan Kuciak, who’s made wonder save after wonder save. However, suddenly, on the outside another contender has risen from the flames, Piast Gliwice, who currently lie just one point behind the leaders Legia with three matches to play.
Piast had an even worse season than Lechia last time around. Indeed, going into the last game they were in the relegation zone. That game was against the team just above them in the table Bruk-Bet Termalica Nieciecza, only a win would do and Piast won 4-0 allowing them to maintain their position in the Ekstraklasa. It was a deeply unimpressive season for Piast, a club which is a financial middle-hitter in Ekstraklasa terms. In the 2017 Deloitte Polska financial report Piast came in 9th place with an income of 28 million PLN (6.6 million Euros) for the year. The principle way that Piast stands out as a club is the amount of support it gets from the city – approximately 42% of its 2017 income came from Gliwice’s municipal authorities (only Śląsk Wrocław receive more from local authorities).
Piast throughout most of its history have been a second or third tier club with their first ever Ekstraklasa appearance coming in 2008. Since 2008 they’ve only been out of the top tier for two seasons and have been ever-present in the Ekstraklasa since 2012-3. The last 6 seasons have seen 4 bottom-half finishes but more importantly they’ve qualified for Europe twice. First in 2012-3 when they finished 4th and in 2015-6 when they started the season like a house on fire and only faded towards the end, eventually finishing 2nd to Legia Warsaw.
Since the 2015-6 season there have been no signs that the club would reach those heights again, the best word to describe their performances has been mediocre. So what’s happened this season? How has a club that has been struggling rose so quickly to the top?
The first important piece of the puzzle is their coach Waldemar Fornalik, or ‘Waldek King’ as he is lovingly referred to by fans. Fornalik is a former Ruch Chorzów player and coach with his biggest success as a player being winning the Polish title in 1989, and as a coach leading Ruch to runners-up in the 2011-2 season – a campaign which also saw Ruch lose in the Polish Cup final.
After the 2012 season Fornalik was appointed the coach of the Polish national team. Fornalik took charge of Poland after a disastrous Euro 2012 when Poland, despite co-hosting, were not able to qualify for the quarter-finals. Fornalik looked lost in the role as Polish national team coach, he was quite simply too nice, too humble a man and seemed to listen to much to what the press was saying about him (most of it bad). Poland’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign was a failure as they finished in 4th place behind Montenegro, Ukraine and England and Fornalik lost his job.
After Fornalik was sacked he went back to club management at his alma mater Ruch Chorzów and did a very decent job once more. Although Ruch only finished 10th and 8th in his first two seasons back in charge, and were heading towards relegation when he left in April 2017, his work now seems very impressive considering the fact that Ruch were in a terrible financial state at the time and will almost certainly fall into the 4th tier in the 2019-2020 season.
Fornalik, after taking over at Piast in September 2017, went about his business quietly as he always does. He set about building a stable side and, while they didn’t pull up any trees last season there were sparks of good play at times. However, none of this suggested that Piast would be a contender this season. Piast started the campaign well and by the winter-break they were in 5th place in the league having gained 31 points from 20 games. But since then their form has exploded. In the last 14 games they’ve won 11 drawn 1 and lost 2, amassing 34 points, including 2 different 5 game winning streaks. In the spring Piast have scored the most goals in the Ekstraklasa: 27 and conceded the least: 9. So what has gone so right?
Simplicity and practicality has been the key. Fornalik understands the importance of a strong core of players. Not for him overly-complicated squad rotation. 9 players at Piast have started 25 of their 34 games this season, 7 have started 27 games or more and 4 players have started over 30 games. This stability has meant that Piast’s squad know their roles to perfection.
Take the example of their last game, a 1-0 win at the leaders Legia. Piast set out in a 4-4-1-1 formation. They played with two sitting midfielders, Tom Hateley and Patryk Dziczek, to nullify Legia’s threat in the middle of the park and allow their most creative player, the attacking midfielder Joel Valencia, the freedom to do what he wanted. Hateley and Dziczek did a calm job of breaking up Legia’s possession and whenever they could released Valencia whose ball skills, tricks and flicks bamboozled the rather wooden Legia defenders.
Although Legia had most of the ball, Piast’s counter-attacks were intelligently carried out. They pushed forward with purpose but were always careful to have enough men behind the ball when Legia themselves attacked. Legia had chances in the game but Piast’s excellent Czech keeper František Plach made several good saves when called upon. Piast’s goal came when, after a flowing move, their roving right-winger/wing-back Martin Konczkowski, (who has 7 assists on the season so far) put over an inch perfect cross and Gerard Badia expertly volleyed home.
Piast never looked rushed in the match, and knew exactly what they were supposed to do, everyone knew their roles on the pitch and they came through what should have been the toughest test of their title credentials relatively easily.
In short everything is working perfectly at this moment in time. The coach knows what the strength of his players are, the players understand each other and their roles on the pitch. In addition, everything seems to be working seamlessly off the pitch as well. There are no big-time Charlies at the club, the players like each other and do not seem to be feeling the pressure and everyone seems to be taking each game as it comes. Piast are in some ways a practical machine without any ill-functioning parts.
Their most likeable player is their Spanish midfielder Badia. An intelligent playmaker, Badia has mostly started on the bench this season. But Badia is the warm centre that the team operates around. Since moving to Gliwice in the winter of 2014 Badia has bucked the trend regarding foreign players in Poland. He openly states that he loves the city of Gliwice, his family is settled in the town, he speaks Polish excellently. In short, he’s the model foreign player in Poland. After the Legia game he gave a lovely interview for Polish television in which he made some very cute grammatical mistakes, including the use of a mild-Polish swearword (zajebiście) which he had picked up from the dressing room without knowing it had a slightly rude meaning.
Of course Piast are not just a workmanlike team which snatches narrow victories with some charismatic players. When they’re given the opportunity they can really turn it on. In mid-February Lech Poznań came to Gliwice, then under the stewardship of former Polish national team coach Adam Nawałka, and Piast blew them away 4-0 with some lovely interplay and excellent finishing.
Lech were desperately poor that day but this result and the way Piast have played in the spring round suggests that the team does whatever is necessary on a given day. When they’re given the freedom to play their football they can play entertainingly and openly, when they need to sit deep and play intelligently on the break, they can do that too.
Of course now the big test lies ahead of them. After their win at Legia, Piast have a legitimate chance at the title for the first time in their history. From a position of complete underdogs they might finally feel the pressure. Whatever happens this season, they’ve exceeded all expectations, and have already guaranteed a European place in the next campaign. But it really would be excellent if they can keep their cool when it matters most. Let’s see what happens.