Jose Maria Bakero has had a great start to the season with Polonia Warszawa. After taking over at the end of last year and performing above expectations his now money laden side was the only team in the Polish Ekstraklasa to take maximum points from all of their matches, that is until they traveled to Lodz. While the media was busy asking how Widzew would contain both Smolarek and Sobiech, the two Polish internationals starting together for the first time, Kretek was busy coming up with the answer: don’t let them get the ball.
The first thing to note is how Widzew’s shape mirrors a 4-2-3-1. It is a bit of a lopsided 4-4-2, sometimes it looks like a 4-1-3-2, and without the ball it resembles a 4-1-4-1. All of this sounds like Widzew are disorganized but that could not be further from the truth. Kretek has a clear plan and his side bought into it today and they were rewarded with a clean sheet against a side that was up to this point unstoppable. The key men in this set up are Duric and Pinheiro. Kuklis started last week against Wisla in place of Bruno Pinheiro and subsequently found himself on the ‘Worst XI’ of the Ekstraklasa website for that week. Pinheiro is a defensive midfielder who gives the players in front of him license to break forward. He rarely makes forward runs, is good in the air, not afraid to tackle, and most importantly positionally aware. His lack of movement is in fact an asset. Duric, on the other hand, has an endless motor. He needs it as Kretek asks him to play two positions; both central midfield beside Panka when not in possession and as a second striker to Sernas when they attack.
Polonia lined up in the now standard for world football, 4-2-3-1. Bakero also decided to invert his wingers with Bruno on the right and Smolarek on the left. However, it was not uncommon to see Smolarek and Bruno switch sides in the first half. Neither is what you would call a natural winger and so both gravitated towards the middle. Unfortunately for Polonia neither of their full backs seemed too intent on attacking the space this created. Mynar made the occasional forward run and looked good doing so but Brzyski seemed content to let Smolarek try and do everything.
So with all this as a set up it was not surprising to see a disjointed start to the match. Neither side was able to sustain possession in the opposition’s half but for two different reasons. For Polonia the story was just how hard and where they were being pressed. As shown in the second figure when Widzew got in their 4-1-4-1 shape each Polonia player had at least one person instantly pressing them, save one of the center backs or the goalkeeper. Not only was each Polonia player being pressed by a specific Widzew defender, they were being pressed all over the pitch. Tralka and Mayoral had real trouble linking up with the front four. Duric hounded Tralka, the man Polonia attempted to play through, and he was a thorn in Polonia’s midfield all match. This meant that Sarvas, Sobiech, Smolarek and Bruno needed to drop deep to get near the ball but they weren’t all too interested in doing so. Even if they did Widzew’s pressing was so good that Polonia were forced into long balls.
Widzew, on the other hand, simply didn’t commit enough players forward to sustain any kind of attack. Mindaugas Panka would be the man expected to drop and get the ball from defense, turn and play a pass but he was effectively man marked out of the half by Mayoral. Mayoral was afforded the ability to track Panka all over the pitch because Sernas was dealt with by the center backs and Tralka had Duric under wraps. Widzew’s attacking game plan resorted to thumping balls towards the athletic Sernas and have him either control the ball, earn a free kick or throw in, or try to beat out a defender.
There was barely a chance in the half, in fact the first shot on net came right at the end of the half but it was a good chance. Brzyski had the ball deep in his half and played a delightful long diagonal ball for Sobiech to run on to. Sobiech in fact found this space because of Widzew’s intense pressing. Broz was following a Smolarek run back into Polonia’s half which created a space between the full back-center back channel. Sobiech was clever enough to find it but his shot was saved by the tandem of Szymanek and Mielcarz.
The second half also started tentatively, neither side able to fashion any sort of attack. Bakero responded by subbing out Sarvas, who had an anonymous match, for Gancarczyk, a more classic right winger with lots of pace. As a result Bruno went to the attacking midfield position. Because of this Bruno was given more space in the center of the park than Sarvas ever had and he managed to find the ball a few times but Pinheiro was usually there to shackle him.
However not long after that substitution Widzew enjoyed a spell of dominance where they should have scored. The first signal of intent was from Dudu who was one of the only Widzew players to have the will to attack and he saw a strike go wide. Then a long ball caught Mynar sleeping and Sernas was well saved by Przyrowski. This seemed to give the hosts confidence and now Widzew were more inclined to engage their midfield. Perhaps their best chance came when Pinheiro made a fantastic sliding tackle in the middle of the park and joined the attack for what seemed like the first time in the match but Sernas could not finish. Widzew’s pressing had been their defensive trademark in the first half but now it was providing them with offensive chances.They routinely won the ball in good positions as a shell shocked Polonia were out of sorts for about 15 to 20 minutes. Luckily for the visitors Przyrowski stood tall and they regained their bearings.
After the string of chances for Widzew the game died down and settled back into it’s defensive beginning. Kretek’s men remained solid at the back while Bakero’s squad settled down and were seemingly happy with the draw. At half it seemed like Widzew were hanging on and would have to tire because of their intense pressing but the pressure eventually broke down Polonia and created a few glorious opportunities. Were it not for some poor finishing and good goalkeeping Kretek would be celebrating a deserved victory over the league leaders. The lack of mobility and willingness to drop deep and play long balls cost Bakero another chance at three points, Widzew were simply not willing to sit back and let Polonia have the ball.