FTF explores the current state of the Poland national team, analysing the country’s rising stars and pondering on life after Robert Lewandowski.
There were high hopes for Poland when the nation embarked on their 2018 World Cup journey.
On the back of a quarter final place in the European Championships two years prior, and having topped their group in qualifying, Poland were expected to dominate a group that was the hardest to predict at the final tournament in Russia.
However, just 160 minutes into their adventure the excitement back home had all but vanished.
A narrow 2-1 defeat to Senegal followed by a humbling 3-0 defeat against Colombia in Kazan, sent the Poles crushing out of the tournament.
The embarrassing performance cost Adam Nawałka his job.
His replacement Jerzy Brzęczek was a surprise choice for the role. Having achieved a 5th placed finish with Wisla Plock during the previous year, Brzeczek’s previous experiences in management were in the lower divisions of Poland.
Poland’s performances in subsequent years, has not been the most impressive to say the least. Brzeczek has often come tactically short, and struggled to contain personalities like Robert Lewandowski in the dressing room with the Bayer Munich forward’s muted body language in international games a hot topic in the Polish media.
Despite qualifying to the 2020 European Championships, Brzęczek’s dismissal was not a major surprise.
In his place, Paulo Sousa, comes with a much higher pedigree. Having achieved success on the continental front at club level, this is his first venture into international football, but he comes with fresh ideas and an attacking philosophy which could help Lewandowski, Milik and Piatek thrive.
More importantly he has experience dealing with high profile players in the dressing room, from his days in the Portugal national team as a player, and having managed clubs like Fiorentina and Bordeaux.
Poland have always been a proud football nation. The 70s and the 80s was the era which reaped much of the country’s achievements. Olympic gold medallists in 1972. Followed by a third place finish in the 1974, and 1982 World Cup.
The likes of Gregorz Lato, Zbigniew Boniek and Kazimierz Deyna were household names during the era.
But as the 1980s brought poverty and decline in the Communist empire, like many socialist countries, investment into football waned.
The decline continued beyond the fall of communism. It took Poland 16 years to qualify for a World Cup after their 1986 appearance.
The new century helped to gradually improve the nation’s fortunes, culminating in the the co-hosted 2012 European Championship.
The tournament was the first where Poland’s golden quartet of Wojciech Szczęsny, Jakub Błaszczykowski, Łukasz Piszczek and Robert Lewandowski donned the national colours together.
Despite some strong performances drawing with Russia and Greece, ultimately the Poles were unlucky to exit the tournament.
Those golden years and stoic achievements of the 1980s and 70s, seem like a long time ago now. But it has not all been doom and gloom.
Precisely five years ago, Poland marched to the quarter finals of the European Championships with the aforementioned quartet. They only lost on penalties against eventual Champions Portugal in a performance which ignited the passion for football back home.
But five years later, Poland’s golden quartet are already coming to the end of their prime years (barring the exception of Robert Lewandowski who seems to age like fine wine).
The new generation emerging are now inspired by the likes of Lewandowski and Błaszczykowski, and not names of a long forgotten past.
‘Robert Lewandowski broke the wall,’ Kamil Rogolski, a Polish football expert, explains. ‘He changed the mentality of the multitude of young Polish football talents. Poles have lived in complexes for years. The Czechs had Pavel Nedved, the Ukrainians had Shevchenko, even the Belarusians of Alexander Hleb, but the Poles had no one. Lewandowski showed that the sky is the limit.’
In prospective tournaments, it is players like these who Paulo Sousa, will have to rely on. Players who unlike pioneers like Lewandowski and co, have tangible idols to emulate and an already paved pathway in front of them.
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The new generation
The Portuguese coach has already reacted to the imminent change with his first national team selection.
He called up 17 year old Kacper Kozlowski and eight U23 players in his first senior squad for crucial games against Hungary and England.
The likes of Jakub Moder, Sebastian Szymanski, Kamil Jozwiak, Kamil Piatkowski as well as Kozlwoski will be the bedrock of a new burgeoning talent of Polish players who have ventured abroad on the success of their predecessors.
Krystian Bielik, Sebastian Walukiewicz, Michal Karbownik and Bartosz Bialek all currently plying their trade in England, Italy and Germany could soon follow suit, as well as 17 year old Mateusz Musialowski who is already training with Liverpool’s first team and has caught the eye with some impressive performances.
What happens after Lewandowski?
Of course, while there is new talent, no matter how promising the emerging crop are, the eventual decline of Robert Lewandowski in future years casts a major shadow over the future of Polish football.
Kamil Rogolski shares those concerns.
‘Do Poles fear a future without Lewandowski? This is not a subject of debate, everyone knows that a footballer like Lewandowski happens once in a hundred years. I think in the future, Poland may struggle with replacing individual stars, such as Lewandowski or Kamil Glik.’
‘Personally, I do not believe that the generation after Lewandowski will be better. Poland may have outstanding individuals, but I do not believe that, as a nation, Poland will make a leap in levels.’
Despite the fears, there are already proactive changes in the national set-up, and identifiable plans to concoct a future in the absence of their talisman.
The average age of Poland’s current national team is relatively young.
Whereas in the 2016 Euro squad there were 10 players based in the Ekstraklasa, that number has diminished to 4 in the 2018 World Cup, and has remained the same in Paulo Sousa’s current squad.
The key difference between the four players called up in 2018 and this time around is that, in 2018, three of the four were over the age of 30. Meanwhile the age of the four Ekstraklasa based players in Sousa’s squad are, 17, 20, 21 and 22. Kamil Piatkowski is included in this number who will be moving to Red Bull Salzburg at the end of the season.
A leader like Lewandowski will be hard to replace. He is after all one of the best players in the world (if not the best at the moment), but the Pole has always struggled with having the right support behind him in midfield. Especially under the last management.
Under Jerzy Brzęczek, Poland were unable to find the right balance in their squad and had notable weaknesses at the back. What is promising about the new emerging generation is the variety of players coming through capable of playing various roles.
The new core
There are solid centre-backs like Walukiewicz, Piatkowski, Bednarek and Bielik. Exciting full-backs such as Karbownik, Gumny, and Puchacz.
But there is also creative flair through the likes of Moder, Jozwiak, Szymanski and Kozlowski. Piotr Zielinski is still only 26, and former Leicester City midfielder Bartosz Kapustka is also making a comeback in the Ekstraklasa. Meanwhile Nicola Zalewski is another one to watch.
Up top, there are finishers too, Musialowski and Bialek are definitely ones for the future. Piatek and Świderski could also take on the mantle if needed. And Milik himself definitely will have a few years at the top when Lewandowski hangs up his boots.
The goalkeeper area is a position Poland have always historically produced top talents from Dudek to Boruc, Szczęsny and Fabianski.
And the next generation will likely have that too, the likes of Majecki, Bulka, Dragowski, Grabara and Ojrzynski are all at top clubs in Europe.
The new boss
Paulo Sousa’s role will be crucial in bedding this new burgeoning talent into the senior set-up and guiding the national team through the inevitable absence of Robert Lewandowski.
He is a manager who has often been able to over-achieve when he has been tasked at overseeing clubs at lower levels.
For example he took Videoton to their first European group-stages since the 1980s and famously beat Sporting Lisbon 3-0.
He won league titles with Basel and did well with Maccabi Tel Aviv too.
A hard-working, tactically intelligent and versatile midfielder back in his day, Paulo Sousa has implemented all of those elements into his managerial career.
He is a manager who will offer a rigid structure but also plays with an element of freedom going forward.
In 427 managed games, Sousa’s teams have scored 662 goals and conceded 486. That means his sides average 1.5 goals per game which is a similar average to Adam Nawałka who was able to get 37 goals out of Robert Lewandowski in 40 games. Meanwhile Jerzy Brzęczek’s was just 1.3 goals per game and he only got 8 goals out Lewandowski in 18 games.
Sousa’s preferred system is a 3-4-2-1 formation.
Looking at Poland’s current personnel and the youth coming through this tactic could complement the national team well.
The likes of Piatkowski, Michael Helik and Pawel Dawidowicz all play regularly in a back three at club level and are all under the age of 25.
In the full-back roles, Jakub Moder is perfectly capable of inhabiting the position, as is Michal Karbownik. Bartosz Bereszynsk and Maciej Rybus will probably be the first choices for now and both will be able to provide the energy needed to flourish in the system. If Sousa wants more offensive options, the likes of Jozwiak and Placheta could also drop back.
The good thing is Poland’s World Cup qualifying group has a few weaker opponents where Sousa will be able to experiment with certain personnel against the likes of San Marino and Andorra.
The holding midfielder role is a position where Poland are stacked. Mateusz Klich, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Bartosz Slisz, Bielik and the aforementioned Moder can all play in the two midfield roles at the heart of Sousa’s team. At international level this is not a bad selection at all.
Up top, in the attacking midfield roles, Szymanski will be an excellent option to support Lewandowski. As will the ever reliable Piotr Zielinski who has played as a number 10 for Napoli this season and has flourished in his role.
In the long term, that will be a position Polish fans will hope will also be filled by Kacper Kozlowski or Mateusz Musialowski.
As Rogolski says Robert Lewandowski changed the scene for Polish football. However, there have been other youth initiatives in the last few years that have aimed to instil a brighter future vision.
Recently the Ekstraklasa has introduced a rule during the 2019/20 campaign declaring that every team must have at least one academy player on the pitch in order to encourage the development of Poland’s youth players.
There have been other ventures too over the years as Rogolski explains.
‘Some 15 years ago in Poland, a certain change of thinking took place. Lewandowski changed much, because he made a career despite the Polish realities, and not thanks to them. When he was younger he was rejected by Legia Warsaw and it was through his own determination that he was able to make it.’
Lewandowski’s role in the way the country views football has made a fundamental impact.
‘Today, awareness is greater, but Poles have come to terms with the fact that we can only supply cogs to a huge machine and sell players with potential.
The federation in the lower leagues introduced a financial bonus for the club in which the youth players played the most minutes. PZPN has introduced a talent identification and monitoring program, but the effectiveness of these programs raises many doubts.’
In recent years Polish teams have definitely embraced giving youth players a chance to shine. 3 of the 5 youngest players in Ekstraklasa history have made their debuts after the obligation to play a youth player in the team was introduced. All three were just 15 years of age at the time.
What is lacking is success at club level on the European front. Poland have not had a representative in the Europa League or the Champions League since the 2016/17 season.
Disappointing defeats, and the best players being snatched away has created an unstable domestic environment.
‘Polish clubs are poor and selling players is a common way to fill a hole in the budget. The sale of Majecki to AS Monaco or Szymański to Dynamo Moscow allowed Legia to continue functioning.
Lech Poznań is famous for its talents, but at the same time sells them too quickly, which translates into a sixth year without a championship title.
We do not have oligarchs like in Ukraine and Russia. And rich people avoid Polish football with a wide berth. Therefore, offers in the order of several million euros are often impossible to refuse.’
The poor state of the league, coupled with the amount of young talent on show has however made the Ekstraklasa an alluring market for clubs looking to land a bargain or to unravel the ‘next Lewandowski’
The Polish league has been slowly growing in stature in terms of player sales for their younger players, 13 of the biggest Ekstraklasa transfers in history have occurred since the 2017/18 season and most were under the age of 23.
‘Certainly, the big advantage of Ekstraklasa is that not only the biggest clubs in Poland can sell a player for a lot of money. Raków Częstochowa returned to Ekstraklasa after twenty years and one and a half years after his promotion, they sold Kamil Piątkowski to RB Salzburg for 6 million euro.
At the same time, these amounts are small for clubs from top leagues, which is why Polish footballers are so popular.’
Projecting the future
The Ekstraklasa are not alone in the aforementioned struggle. Many European leagues outside the top five are ‘selling’ leagues too.
Of course there will be concerns with the pace club’s sell their best young players. Moving abroad too soon, or to a club ‘too big’ can be detrimental to a player’s development.
The role of player agencies could be the key. With good career guidance, a good agent can ensure his player makes the right decisions for a brighter long term future.
And judging by the Ekstraklasa’s biggest departures in recent years, Poland’s youngsters are indeed making smart decisions hinting that there is room for hope.
Jakub Moder’s transfer to Brighton is a good example, as is Kamil Piatkowski’s future move to Red Bull Salzburg. These clubs are renowned for giving young players a chance and for their clever scouting techniques. Their recruitments rarely go amiss.
Replacing key personnel like Kamil Glik and Robert Lewandowski in the dressing room will be tough. Especially the influence of Lewandowski.
But by no means impossible. And they will be doing it at a time, when many of the World’s best international teams will be doing the same. Portugal with Ronaldo, Argentina with Messi, Croatia with Modric.
What the future holds remains to be seen. But it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. And if Poland continue to produce and churn out talents to England, Italy and Germany, the future will remain bright.
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