When Franciszek Smuda first took over the Polish national team he seemed to have a large amount of naïve optimism surrounding the team. Starting with a 4-3-3 formation early in his tenure, Smuda wanted Poland to play ‘like Barcelona, to have his players know exactly where each teammate was by instinct.’ However, many players from the real Barcelona taught Smuda and a young Polish team, including names such as Kamil Glik and Marcin Sadlok in defense, a lesson in his first match in charge: you have to be damn good to be able to play like that.
Since that early promise of beautiful football Smuda has taken a more pragmatic approach. It would be simple to analyze the squad as two banks of four who only attack on the break and rely on Lewandowski, but Smuda has options in attack and what combination he chooses might depend on the opposition as much as it depends on form and ability.
It’s no secret that Poland’s back four has been a question mark during Smuda’s reign, much like it has been since the departure of stalwarts such as Tomasz Waldoch, Tomasz Hajto, and Jacek Bak. He has finally seemingly decided on a central pairing that would have come as a shock to followers not long ago – French born defender Damien Perquis and Anderlecht hard man Marcin Wasilewski. Perquis is recovering from an arm injury and should be good to go from the start of the tournament. He is more of the reader of the game between the two of them, good in the air despite lacking some of the physical tools of Wasilewski. Meanwhile the Belgian based defender loves to attack the ball and though he may get caught out of position sometimes, if you ask him to defend the box he is as good as anyone.
The right side of defense will be patrolled by Lukasz Piszczek, the Dortmund regular who forced his name into the discussion of the best right backs in Europe. A forward who was converted to wing, then finally converted to full back, he has an endless motor that will push the opposition winger back, deliver a cross, then race back to break up a counter. The other side is a bit of a question mark. Sebastien Boenisch is Smuda’s first choice but he is just coming back from a serious injury and is suffering from a lack of match fitness. He recently went 90 solid minutes against Andorra but if he is deemed not ready his spot will be filled by the unspectacular Jakub Wawrzyniak, a possession keeping full back who won’t exactly dominate the flank.
Here Smuda has a number of solid, if uninteresting, names to pick from. Dariusz Dudka, Eugen Polanski, Rafal Murawski, and Adam Matuszczyk are all decent players, but no combination of them is going to dominate possession at Euro. Whatever two the Polish coach picks will most likely be asked to sit in front of the defense and provide a shield to the backline. When they get the ball look for them to spray quick passes wide into the channels; keeping the ball in the opposition half would be nice but not the mandate of these players.
Murawski and Polanski seem like the likely choices to start for Poland with Dudka as their chief back up. Murawski seems to have beaten Dudka for the starting job beside Polanski. The diminutive midfielder has been good since his return to Lech and he is probably the best passer of the bunch.
This is where Smuda’s selection gets interesting. Right now the probable set up seems to be Maciej Rybus on the left, captain Jakub ‘Kuba’ Blaszczykowski on the right, with Ludovic Obraniak supporting star man Robert Lewandowski. Both Rybus and Blaszczykowski are fit and disciplined players who are willing to track back, create a bank of four with the central midfielders, before making direct forward runs and delivering service to Lewandowski. Rybus replaces Slawomir Peszko, a similar type of player who is good on the counter but was kicked of the team for a drinking mishap involving the police.
The two main subs out wide will be the Turkish based duo of Kamil Grosicki and Adrian Mierzejewski. Both players offer something different to the attack. Grosicki is a speed merchant who likes to stay high up the pitch and exploit the space in behind the opposition full back. He is just as likely to cut in and have an attempt on goal himself as he is to create for others. A useful player later in the game to take advantage of a weary backline when in need of a goal, the Sivasspor player is not disciplined enough to be trusted by Smuda from the start.
Trabzonspor’s Mierzejewski, on the other hand, is a player who thrives with the ball at his feet. He loves to try through balls, crosses, tricks and one-twos and is Poland’s most creative player. Unfortunately he can be quite inconsistent but even if he is not producing offensively he can still be counted on to work hard without the ball.
The other French born player in the squad, Bordeaux’s Obraniak, is also expected to be a starter for Poland. He doesn’t possess the athleticism or pressing ability of the other players but he is Poland’s most cultured midfielder, capable of providing a pin point pass or cross and creating a chance out of nothing. Look for him and Mierzejewski to battle for the spot behind Lewandowski. Both can also play on the wing and it’s possible there will be a time where neither will play if Poland go with a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 set up.
Up front not much needs to be said. Lewandowski is the starter and will be relied upon heavily to provide goals. His back ups are Pawel Brozek and Artur Sobiech though neither had a strong season. The latter looks to have the inside track to be Poland’s second striker but neither is close to usurping Lewandowski. It is possible one might be subbed in to partner Lewandowski if Poland are in need of a goal.
Like mentioned earlier Poland will not be expected to dominate possession at the tournament. They simply don’t have the quality to do so and will thus rely on quick attacks to score. There are two avenues Smuda takes to creating quality chances – 1) By countering quickly, getting the ball into the channels right away so his direct and fast attackers can exploit space vacated by the opposition and 2) By taking turns throughout the match pressing the opposition near half and in their own end to win the ball near the opposition box when their defensive shape is compromised.
The first tactic is nothing special or interesting, it is the way many reactive sides who have less talent approach matches, but the second approach is something that Poland have done to decent effect in their friendlies. In their 3-1 win against the Ivory Coast the Poles scored twice after winning the ball in the Ivory Coast’s half while they created numerous chances against quality opposition such as Portugal and Germany by surprising them with their pressing when the backline had the ball near the half way line.
Poland’s pressing isn’t perfect, however, with cultured midfielders such as Andrea Pirlo able to break the press and then attack a slightly out of shape Polish team, as he did in Italy’s 2-0 win over the Eastern Europeans. Poland will need to press at times, however, because their defense is simply incapable of lasting 90 minutes with mistake free football and because their lack of quality passers in the back and midfield means creating decent chances starting in their own half will be very difficult.
Poland are not favourites by any stretch despite being hosts. They will need to do what many weaker sides need to do to be successful: play reactive, defensive football, counter efficiently, get big performances from individuals (such as Lewandowski, Blasczykowski, and Szczesny) and nip a set piece goal here and there.
What they can do to relieve some of the pressure from both their defense and offense is press the opposition at times when they are being lackadaisical and in areas where winning the ball would start an instant attack, and with numerous athletic attackers, including the Dortmund trio who are used to a high octane pressing game, Smuda’s pattern of pressing will be interesting to watch.