The Polish national team won their third successive match but like their victory against Moldova it was another slow and uneventful 1-0 win. The result itself is something Polish fans can be proud of but Norway carried much of the play in the second half following an attacking switch. This game showed that individual tactical instructions can compensate for formational shortcomings. It also showed that that doesn’t always necessarily lead to a win.
Norway start rigid
Immediately one could see Norway’s formation without the ball. The team was obviously very disciplined and when not in possession they almost instantaneously lined up into a 4-1-4-1 formation. Two solid banks of four were separated by a midfield anchor man to fill in any space between the lines. Poland’s 4-3-3, which seems to be the preferred choice of Franciszek Smuda given he has used it in three straight matches, had trouble finding space in the attacking third. When you combine a lack of movement from an out of form Jelen, positional discipline from a tough defending side, and a lack of a true offensive creator, you’re always going to struggle for chances.
Norway seemed content to let the Polish back line have the ball and only pressed when the ball came near half. Eventually Tettey and Grindheim started pressing slightly higher but only pressed the midfielders, not the Polish defenders. Norway let Poland have the ball in non-threatening positions and cut off passing lanes before pressing their opponents when the ball entered the final third. Lewandowski and Obraniak took turns trying to drop into space beside Hauger but they often found themselves closed down either by him, a full back, or another central midfielder. It was going to take some bit of creative movement for Poland to get a chance be it a deep overlap from a full back, a central midfielder bombing forward, or Jelen dragging defenders around for the attacking midfielders. It was in fact a forward run from central defender Kamil Glik that began the move that gave Poland the goal.
Glik found himself with acres of space in front of him as the Norwegian midfield was concerned Poland’s more creative players. Eventually he went so far that he had to be closed down which is when he dumped the ball off immediately to Dudka. This slight change in Norway’s shape gave Poland the slightest opening and it still took a nice bit of skill from Lewandowski to score but it showed just how rigid Norway were. It would have been nice to see a ball playing defender, someone like Sadlok be able to exploit the time on the ball but he probably would have struggled with Norway’s ‘route one’ attack.
Norway direct in attack
On the other side of the ball Norway played a very simple, direct game. Carew operated as a lone striker and the Scandinavian side relied on long balls directed at him to be turned into a free kick or a chance for the ball to be held up and let the midfield to join the attack. Carew had some measure of success against the Polish pair of center backs but both Glowacki and Glik held their own. Norway looked the most dangerous on set pieces or Riise’s long throws. There is nothing you can do tactically about this except practice for it and maybe inject some extra height in your side.
When Poland got in their shape there wasn’t much Norway could do other than lump the ball forward and hope Carew could fashion a chance. The only other times Norway looked dangerous was when Poland gave the ball away cheaply which didn’t happen too often because of the lack of pressure in dangerous areas.
Norway switch to a higher pressing 4-4-2
At half time Norwegian coach Egil Olsen made two substitutions which led to a change in formation for his side. He switched to a 4-4-2 which theoretically would give Poland the advantage. Having an extra man in midfield means you have the opportunity to pass around the opposition’s midfield two. Usually a team will compensate with this lack of midfielder by dropping a striker deep when out of possession to close down the deepest midfielder, however if the team with the 4-4-2 presses as a unit and the team with the 4-3-3 doesn’t have the ability and/or doesn’t present themselves for a pass then the advantage is negated. This is very much what happened in this match, even though the Norwegians may have lacked numbers in midfield they made up for it with systematic pressing ensuring that in the part of the pitch where the ball was they had enough men. Poland needed to make quicker, decisive passes and anticipate the closing down but often were forced backwards to Szczesny whose own distribution has been questioned.
Offensively Norway found much joy out wide in activating their full backs and in between the center back and full back channels as they were able to use their wingers and full backs to get around Poland’s midfield three. That being said they rarely threatened directly on goal as the Polish center back pairing, perhaps the biggest question mark in the squad, had a solid game. Despite getting forward more Norway’s best chances still came on set pieces. Riise’s throw ins were dangerous and his free kick forced Szczesny into the best save of the match. Eventually Grosicki came on for Jelen and while he was immediately more mobile and provided another passing option Poland still struggled to retain any possession or hit Norway on the counter. They relied on defensive solidity and a lack of ingenuity from Norway for the win.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this lackluster match was the idea that a theoretical miscue in formation shift (i.e. going to a 4-4-2 versus a 4-3-3) can be compensated for by good individual tactical instructions (the pressing of Norway). This micro versus macro tactical idea can be a good debate but the correct answer is that getting both levels correct gives you the best chance of winning. Norway lost at the macro (formational) level but won at the micro (individual tactical) level. This meant they played better than in the first half but still weren’t able to pull out a win. There are many factors that lead to a win, tactics is just one amongst others such as luck, individual talent, and random error.
For Poland we learned that Smuda seems to have settled on a preferred formation. The 4-3-3 he played today is the same as the one that he played against the Ivory Coast with similar individual instructions. We also learned he’s willing to move players around within the formation with Blaszczykowski playing the deep role that Mierzejewski usually plays and Lewandowski filling the attacking midfield role vacated by the aforementioned Kuba. It wasn’t a pretty win but if you had asked any Polish fan before the match if they’d take a 1-0 win over Norway the answer would be a resounding yes. It remains to be seen if these wins are flukes or the side truly coming together as a cohesive unit.