The Polish national team had been mired in a long winless drought prior to the match against their African visitors, and even though Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, and Kolo Toure missed out many fans were expecting another embarrassing performance. Lukasz Fabianski was expected to falter, Robert Lewandowski would miss his chances, and Franciszek Smuda would make inept decisions all match long. What they got instead was in fact the exact opposite.
Boka and Keita vs. Piszczek and Blaszczykowski
When the two sides lined up it looked like the interesting battle would be on Poland’s right wing. Lukasz Piszczek is easily Poland’s best defender and he was buffered by his new captain, Jakub ‘Kuba’ Blaszczykowski who is talented going forward and coming back. Meanwhile the Ivory Coast deployed the right footed Kader Keita on the left wing, presumably to help create space for Arthur Boka, the so called ‘African Roberto Carlos’, at least for his tendencies to get forward. Kuba won the first battle due to his trademark workrate, dispossessing the well forward Boka but his chance was blocked well. A few minutes later Boka was all alone deep in Poland’s half delivering a cross into the box before he was found in the box himself. Clearly Poland was going to have trouble with their opponents’ full backs due to the narrow nature of their formation and the tendencies of the Ivory Coast full backs.
Yaya Toure the key to width
Yaya Toure has been employed in a more advanced role at Manchester City this year and once in a while you can get a glimpse of his good passing ability. In this match neither side had anyone naturally lined up beside their opposition’s deepest midfielder. The reason Toure had more time on the ball than Rafal Murawski was because Poland were very selective in their pressing. If they had the Ivory Coast deep in their half they would press as a unit to win the ball back in a good position. If not they let the Africans have the ball and press when they got it in a dangerous position. The problem was that Toure had all day when his team was set up and both Boka and Demel got forward often. So while Boka did get into great positions and deliver good balls early on it is important to note how he got the ball. On the other hand the Ivory Coast pressed Poland wherever their midfield had the ball and Poland couldn’t sustain possession because they simply didn’t have the quality. Poland’s goals were always going to come from counters, mistakes, or intense pressing high up the pitch.
Pressing deep earns Poland the lead
Poland didn’t look like creating anything from a string of passes starting in their own half and they knew it. The first goal of the match came about because of the aforementioned pressing deep in their opponent’s half. Murawski found himself unexpectedly forward, but he was allowed to push up because like himself, his two midfield partners, Adrian Mierzejewski and Adam Matuszczyk, are both good two way midfielders. Had he not had the support of the other two deep lying central midfielders a run forward like that would have left the (usually shambolic) Polish defense with little cover. As it were Murawski caught a lackadaisical Sol Bamba in possession well in his own half. Looking up he saw Matuszczyk make a late run who then played a perfectly weighted ball to Robert Lewandowski who calmly rounded the keeper to put the goal away.
Poland looked more comfortable after the goal and became more adventurous for a few minutes but eventually the game settled back into it’s pattern. Boka earned a dangerous free kick which hit the wall and he and Keita were pinning back Piszczek who loves to get forward himself. Kuba eventually started playing deeper but that just resulted in Toure spreading the ball to the right and Demel looked more dangerous. The goal in fact came from the right side, a simple cross was allowed to get in where Grzegorz Wojtkowiak and Tomasz Jodlowiec combined to give Gervinho an easy goal. It was a frustrating and simple goal to give up before the half, especially considering Poland could have been 2-nil up minutes before when Kuba dispossessed the other center back, Didier Zokora, who was also lazy in possession. Again the point here is that Poland didn’t have the quality or personnel to pass the ball around and needed to press.
At half-time Smuda had some adjustments to make. As I noted in the Polish Football Online forum:
“My keys to winning the game:
1. Defend wider. Obraniak and Kuba need to do a better job on Demel and Boka, respectively. This has a knock on effect, with more support both Sadlok and to a greater extent Piszczek can join the attack.
2. Press Yaya Toure better. When Ivory Coast do have the ball it’s all going through him and if we keep giving him time he’s gonna keep picking out those passes.
3. Bomb the mids forward. I like how Murawski-Matuszczyk-Mierzejewski are all versatile and can interchange, if one joins the attack the other two aren’t exposed. Lewandowski is physically beasting at times out there but he needs another body.”
Smuda seemed to agree as early on in the second stanza one noticed Matuszczyk (point #3) getting forward more and Toure having less time on the ball (point #2). Even though Toure was playing on his same axis as the first half the Polish central midfielders took turns pressing him whenever he got the ball. Boka and Demel were subdued in the second half because there was no one to get them the ball.
Obraniak free role
Ludovic Obraniak started the match as a left winger and for the most part he stayed there, but he also tended to drift towards the middle and even into the right wing area where he was able to combine well with Kuba. This put Poland’s two most technically gifted players near each other and they linked up well to maintain possession at times but this left Sadlok somewhat exposed. The youngster did well and picked his forward runs carefully.
Piszczek finally gets forward
Poland were keeping the Ivory Coast at bay a lot better to begin the second half thanks to their shackling of Toure but they still needed to score to win. Many would simply look at Obraniak’s goal and chalk it up to individual brilliance (which it was) but it is important to see how that free kick was earned. Interestingly, it came about because of the defensive work of Poland’s wingers (point #1). Obraniak had tracked back and helped win the ball which came to Kuba who also ran back deep inside his own half to help out. Once Poland gained possession the space Kuba created by coming back was overlapped into by Piszczek. He used his athleticism and skill to win a free kick to the left of Daniel Yeboah’s goal which Obraniak flighted in.
Ivory Coast no Plan B, commit too much
Francois Zahoui had no answer now, his only solution seemed to be the send more men forward. Poland sat deep, kept their shape, and subdued an Ivory Coast team that had no direction. Smuda threw on Pawel Brozek which shifted Lewandowski wide left. He killed the game from this position. Poland won the ball near the half and Sadlok was allowed to walk forward with no one anywhere close to him. He laid the ball to Matuszczyk who slid in Lewandowski again to score, this time killing the match.
Poland played within itself to win an important match. Even though it was just a friendly it was a national team debut in a new stadium against a good opponent and it was a match that fans were calling for Smuda’s head if he failed to deliver a win. The future Euro hosts picked when to press, did so as a unit, and took their chances. The back line remains shaky but Fabianski played well to keep Poland in front. An interesting question arises out of this match: If the versatile midfield trio works so well for how Poland needs to play, where does Ireneusz Jelen fill in when healthy? Many want Mierzejewski out and Jelen in, and while the Auxerre attacker is no doubt more talented whether he is more functional is a separate debate.