Seven points from a possible nine made this an extremely profitable week for Paulo Sousa’s Poland team; and with high-scoring victories against Albania and San Marino, and a hard-fought draw against England, they look to have played themselves into a strong position in Group I.
Ryan Hubbard brings five talking points from the international break.
Has Poland’s core begun to show signs of rot?
For years now, the Biało-Czerwoni have relied on a solid core, of which Wojciech Szczęsny, Kamil Glik and Grzegorz Krychowiak have been integral. It’s a nucleus that has lasted for nine years, outlasted three managers, and helped Poland to qualify for three successive major tournaments. But now, there are real concerns that it may be beginning to outstay its welcome.
The trio are still undoubtedly the strongest players that Poland have in their positions; but disappointing performances are becoming more and more frequent. While these can be accommodated against some of the perceived weaker nations, it doesn’t bode well heading towards a major tournament.
For a country which prides itself on its rich goalkeeping history, Szczęsny can often be the source of much frustration. On his best days, he’s nothing short of world class; on his worst, mistakes can be disastrous. Thankfully for Poland this time he avoided the latter, although some suggest he could have done better for Harry Kane’s opener on Wednesday evening.
For Glik, his struggle to form an effective partnership with Southampton defender Bednarek has contributed to his poor reviews in recent outings. The most senior member of the national team is also beginning to show his 33 years: the little pace he had is starting to desert him, whilst injury niggles are steadily increasing too.
Krychowiak, meanwhile, has probably come in for the most flak over the last twelve months. Sloppy performances for the national team are a world away from those which earned him rave reviews at Lokomotiv Moscow last season, and an ineffective Krychu effectively creates a gaping hole in the middle of the park.
While the steady decline in performances can, perhaps be expected of players now well into their thirties (it must be remembered that, by their ages, the likes of Boniek, Deyna and Smolarek had all effectively retired from the national team), maybe the drop in performances are highlighted by the fact that the fourth member of the country’s spine, 33-year-old Robert Lewandowski, seems to still only be improving?
Yet particularly the performances of Glik and Krychowiak against England showed why the pair can still be an important part of the Poland setup. Both were tenacious and solid throughout, and thwarted the visiting attack on several occasions. After their substitutions in the second half, their absence was clearly visible.
But showing up for the odd performance is no good for Poland in the long term. If these type of performances are only going to become more intermittent, then it may be in the team’s best interests to blood a permanent solution.
So, who’s better: Lewandowski or Kane?
Prior to the match, much of the talk in the media focused on the meeting of two of Europe’s best strikers. Asked before the game his opinions, England coach Gareth Southgate was quick to draw the similarities between the pair.
While Kane’s wonder strike from 30 yards out was almost certain to see him splashed over the back pages, Lewandowski’s assist for Szymański’s late equaliser ensured that he got his fair share of the plaudits, too.
In reality though, Kane’s impact on the game was fleeting. Lewy’s, meanwhile, showed much more substance. During the first half, Lewy was at the centre of most of Poland’s attacking play, while in the second, as the English defence tightened, his intelligence and movement helped to create chances when he wasn’t being served himself.
It was billed as the meeting of the world’s best number 9s, even if the traditional definition of the role is not one which Lewy occupies for Poland. Not only is he the man which they want to convert the chances, he’s also often the one needed to create them, too. Against teams with more resolute defences, his inability to be in two places at once becomes more apparent.
While he had no problems carving open the Albanian and Sammarinese defences, against the English he was forced into that deeper role, providing for others rather than himself. His 92nd minute cross onto Szymański’s head proved that he has no problem fulfilling that role when needed.
Ultimately, the Tottenham striker may be etched into the record books as a goalscorer, but it was the Bayern Munich frontman’s leading role which was the much more impressive.
Who has begun to stake their claim?
“One swallow does not a summer make”, just as “one performance does not make an international career”; but while some of the team’s more experienced players struggled to show their worth at times, several others offered Paulo Sousa some food for thought.
Obviously, having outscored Lewandowski over the three games, New England Revolution’s Adam Buksa is the first name to spring to mind. The striker bounded around in the first two games with the enthusiasm of an excited labrador, and stakes his claim to partner Lewy with some impressive finishing. By all accounts, his impressive performances in the MLS have attracted suitors in Europe too, with Sousa’s former club Leicester City reportedly eyeing up the 25-year-old.
After some questions placed upon him, Karol Linetty has also finally seemed to mature into the centre midfield role; and after Lewandowski was possibly Poland’s most consistent player over the course of the grouping. His substitute performance and late goal against Albania earned him a starting berth against San Marino, while another goal there rightly put him into Sousa’s eleven for the visit of the English.
Another who looks to have stepped up over the international break is Union Berlin’s Tymoteusz Puchacz. In the wing-back role he provided Poland with a strong attacking threat, rampaging down the left-hand side on several occasions, and putting in crosses which often caused the English defence problems. While Raheem Sterling did also get the better of him during a couple of English attacks, his own defensive performance was still nothing to be ashamed of, either. Puchacz was also Poland’s best defensively-minded player against San Marino, before being rested early in the second half.
While they still are far from the first choices in their respective roles, the likes of Nicola Zalewski, Damian Szymański and Paweł Dawidowicz also proved that Sousa has much more depth in his squad than many had thought.
Is the criticism aimed at Paulo Sousa still justified?
Understandably, with just one win in his first eight games at the helm (3-0 v Andorra), the Portuguese entered the international break treading very thin ice. Appointed by Zbigniew Boniek during his final months at the head of the PZPN, good results were essential this time out in order to impress his new boss, Cezary Kulesza.
With that in mind, the seven points picked up have been a justification for his selection, and seem to signal a manager steadily getting to grips with international football, a new country and footballing culture, and a group of players – many of which he probably wouldn’t have known too much about this time last year.
Yet, even after the comfortable victory in Serravalle, there were still doubts over his suitability to the role.
An inability to organise the defensive line has been Poland’s weak point to date during this qualification cycle, while too often poor performances from key players have cast doubts over the team selection. The performance against England seems to have alleviated some of these, but it’s highly likely that these criticisms will rise to the surface soon again.
However, it must be remembered that Sousa has been hampered terribly during his brief tenure as Selekcjoner.
Firstly, the timing of his appointment left him extremely hamstrung in the build-up to the opening qualifiers in March. With only a few days to cram in the necessary preparation with his new team, it was of little surprise that Poland looked disjointed against Hungary, Andorra and England.
As with every national team, the Covid-19 pandemic has also regularly interfered with squad selections. Several players, including Łukasz Skorupski and Kamil Piątkowski missed qualifying games due to positive Covid tests, while Krychowiak’s positive test caused disruption ahead of the trip to face England in March. Then there is Leeds midfielder Mateusz Klich, who has only been available for selection on one occasion, with two separate positive tests ruling him out of both World Cup qualifier squads.
And then we have the seemingly endless injury list with which the Portuguese has been forced to contend with. Krzysztof Piątek and Arkadiusz Milik have both been ripped out of the Poland attack with long-term injuries; Dawid Kownacki, Jacek Góralski and Arkadiusz Reca have all spent lengthy spells on the sidelines; while Kacper Kozłowski, Bartosz Bereszyński, Kamil Glik, Piotr Zieliński and even Robert Lewandowski have all been forced to miss games too. One wonders, if Sousa had a full squad to select from, what his team might actually look like.
Ultimately, the European Championships were a disappointment, yet the Białe-Orły have recovered from it well. Still on track for qualification, whilst implementing a much-needed new style, perhaps the knives out for Sousa can be put back away for now…
Can Poland qualify for the World Cup?
In a short answer: yes, definitely.
The draw with England, coupled with Albania’s win over San Marino, means that the White Eagles drop to third in the group; but with return fixtures against the Albanians and Sammarinese in the next break, and finishing up with Andorra and Hungary in November, the ball is very much in Poland’s court – even if they are now likely only to be fighting for a place in the play-off round.
Albania and Hungary will fight for points in matchday six, while both still also have to travel to Wembley in the coming months – Paulo Sousa’s side being the most likely to benefit from the almost-inevitable loss of points. The Poles, meanwhile, will be expected to pick up maximum points from San Marino and Andorra, leaving it likely that four points from their clashes with Albania in Tirana and Hungary in Warsaw will be enough for second in the group.
Performances in the first two games of this break were far below the standard of which Polish fans expect; yet, even so, eleven goals provided the attack with plenty of confidence. The manner of their draw against the Three Lions, and their competent performance in doing so, will provide them with a further boost heading into their final four games.
Yes, the doubts over certain players and tactics do not just disappear after one good performance, and the upcoming games will be much more pressurised than a match against the English, in which they often expect to get little from. But now, at least, they have put themselves in a very strong position in Group I.
Group I Standings (after six games):
- Andorra 2-0 San Marino
- Hungary 0-4 England
- POLAND 4-1 Albania
- Albania 1-0 Hungary
- England 4-0 Andorra
- San Marino 1-7 POLAND
- Albania 5-0 San Marino
- Hungary 2-0 Andorra
- POLAND 1-1 England