It’s probably too strong to say Poland are enjoying their own Golden Generation, on par with the likes of France and Belgium, but the current iteration of the squad is looking better than it has since the mid-80s.
Led by striker Robert Lewandowski, who seems to be scoring a goal every time you look in his direction, Poland are coming off a decent run in Euro 2016. There, they made it to the quarterfinals before being knocked out by eventual winners Portugal in a penalty shootout.
Since then, they’ve continued to do the thing that makes them successful: score lots and lots of goals. They hit the back of the net 25 times in the World Cup qualifying rounds, and 16 of those came from the feet and head of Lewandowski, making him the top overall scorer in UEFA World Cup qualifying. Since then they’ve played four friendlies and scored a total of 11 goals, culminating in a 4-0 pasting of Lithuania on Tuesday.
So the good news is Poland can score, and the better news is that the young players on the team have only gotten better since the Euros. The majority of Lewandowski’s Poland career has been mostly a solo show, but the last two years have seen the development of Arkadiusz Milik and Piotr Zieliński, two young attackers who are starting to come into their own and can provide some much needed support for Lewandowski.
Goalkeepers: Wojciech Szczęsny (Juventus), Bartosz Białkowski (Ipswich Town), Łukasz Fabiański (Swansea City)
Defenders: Michał Pazdan (Legia Warsaw), Artur Jędrzejczyk (Legia Warsaw), Thiago Cionek (SPAL), Jan Bednarek (Southampton), Maciej Rybus (Lokomotiv Moscow), Kamil Glik (Monaco), Bartosz Bereszyński (Sampdoria), Łukasz Piszczek (Borussia Dortmund)
Midfielders: Jacek Góralski (Ludogorets Razgrad), Karol Linetty (Sampdoria), Grzegorz Krychowiak (West Bromwich Albion), Kamil Grosicki (Hull City), Jakub Błaszczykowski (VfL Wolfsburg), Sławomir Peszko (Lechia Gdansk), Piotr Zieliński (Napoli), Rafał Kurzawa (Górnik Zabrze)
Forwards: Arkadiusz Milik (Napoli), Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), Łukasz Teodorczyk (Anderlecht), Dawid Kownacki (Sampdoria)
The White and Reds
As previously mentioned, all this dude does is score. He scores in the German league, where he just came up one goal short of his third consecutive 30-goal season. He scores in the Champions League, where he’s bagged 22 goals in his last 32 appearances. He scores in international competitions, where he’s banged in 48 goals in a Poland shirt, making him the team’s all-time leading scorer. One time, this motherfucker scored five goals in nine minutes!
Five! In nine! I still can’t believe that happened. You have to respect the skills of a man capable of turning Pep Guardiola into a baby seeing bubbles for the first time:
If you’re looking for a way to knock Lewandowski, you’ll have to do that thing that gets done to lots of supremely talented strikers, and declare that he doesn’t show up for the big games. Lewandowski does have a tendency to score bushels of goals against weaker opponents only to recede in bigger games. He scored 13 goals in 10 matches in the qualifying rounds before Euro 2016, only to go ice cold in the tournament and score just one goal in five games. He’s had similar issues in the Champions League, where he’s scored just two goals in the quarterfinals or later over the past three seasons.
So you are free to poo-poo the 16 goals he scored in 10 World Cup qualifying matches, but you do so at your own risk. Just remember that a guy who is capable of scoring five goals in nine minutes is never too far away from humiliating his detractors.
Zieliński is a 24-year-old attacking midfielder who has long been a coveted prospect. He first caught people’s attention playing for Italian side Udinese and then on a two-yer loan spell Empoli. His performances there had Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp desperate to sign him, but he lost out to Napoli’s Maurizio Sarri, who went so far as to call Zieliński the “next Kevin De Bruyne.” Yowza!
This will be a big tournament for Zieliński personally, as his 2016 Euro tournament ended in embarrassment. He was subbed out just 45 minutes into the team’s final group stage match against Ukraine, and then never saw the pitch again. But he’s come back strong since then, and has been a mainstay in Poland’s lineup during the qualifying rounds, getting more minutes than everyone on the team except Lewandowski.
Zieliński will be relied on to bring spark and creativity to Poland’s midfield, and to combine with Lewandowski in attack. He’s a young, talented player who is eager to prove himself, and those are some of the most fun players to watch at the World Cup.
Poland is another team that has had trouble settling on a formation. Manager Adam Nawałka has been trying to find a way to improve the defense, which was good in Euro 2016 but had the worst defensive record of any group winner in World Cup qualifying. He experimented with a 3-4-3 formation in a few friendlies, but usually has the squad in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2.
But no amount of formation shifting will be able to solve the fact that most of the defensive players, aside from world-class keeper Wojciech Szczęsny, just aren’t very good. What Nawałka will need to do is find the formation that best empowers Zieliński, Lewandowski, and the oft-injured but talented Milik to get up the field and score enough goals to outpace their opponents. If those three can all get on the field together and start bombing away, good things might happen.
All times Eastern
June 19, 11 a.m.: Poland vs. Senegal at Spartak Stadium
June 24, 2 p.m.: Poland vs. Colombia at Kazan Arena
June 28, 10 a.m.: Japan vs. Poland at Volgograd Arena