Pat Nowak

Old Ghosts Continue to Haunt Poland

While Poland had the strongest team in its football history since the 80's, it was poor tactics which fundamentally ended a run which could have been so much more beautiful / Facebook
Old Ghosts Continue to Haunt Poland

UEFA EURO 2016 is now over, at least for us.

On Thursday we were defeated 5:3 on spot kicks by Portugal in what had ended as a 1:1 draw in regulation. Our first time in the Quarter-finals of the UEFA EUROs and it all ended in calamity.

The common saying of the night by the media was to hold our heads up high; be happy that we were even there that far to begin with. While most Poland supporters did just that, I myself was perhaps one of the minority who disagreed. Sorry but that is a backwards type of mentality, especially for a nation the size of Poland.

Suffice to say I felt much more disappointment than pride. Not only disappointment of a penalty shootout loss, but of the potential this team had and how far we could had really gone on to go; if it were only not for old ghosts still holding us back from true success. A Quarter-finals finish being considered a success for a small nation like Portugal would be a joke. Yet it was supposed to make us feel like on cloud nine.

The truth is that without a doubt this was the best Poland squad since the storied teams of the 70’s and 80’s. It excelled in qualifiers, had the best striker in the world, an exceptional midfield, superb goalkeeping and one of the best defenses that Polish football has ever seen. Undefeated in the group stage and advanced to the knockout stage with the same amount of points as Germany. This team was the real deal.

In addition, Poland also had the luck of being placed in the ‘weaker’ knockout bracket. To simply put it, this was the easiest it was ever going to get for Poland.

So what happened? How did one of the best teams in Polish football history since the 80’s end up losing to one of the weakest teams in recent Portuguese memory? The short answer to this is the attempt of employing the methods that had plagued Polish teams in the past: the ‘play it safe without risk’ approach. This is the approach most commonly used for the traditional first two group stage games for Poland which would always end in disappointment. Only in the third game would this avenue be avoided but dismally be meaningless by then.

Looking back to our game with Switzerland last Saturday this can evidently be shown.

According to the bookies, Switzerland were indeed the underdog side against us. A decent tactical side that lacked a finishing blow, it was the Swiss whom the media were convinced would get torn apart by Poland and one Robert Lewandowski.

No such thing occurred. Poland entered the game with the biggest star in the world of football strikers but only managed to dominate the Swiss for most of the first half. After the break things started to go downhill. Less offensive runs were being made, our strikers became no-shows and we found ourselves practically parking the bus.

The practical answer to this is that because we had 3 less days to rest than the Swiss did. Okay fine, I can accept that answer for our abysmal performance in extra time. However, this is not a legitimate excuse for what we did in the second half. Over there it was more of the case of set tactics. We’re in the lead, why risk things and pressure for a second goal? After all when we could simply try to defend a 1:0 lead instead. Our offensive threat died down and encouraged Switzerland to pounce on us with all they had.

Since we opted to defend we had less of the ball. What happens when you don’t have the ball and have to chase for it? You get tired. Even more so with the lack of rest days.

Out of three substitutions, Adam Nawalka only used two.

In the end we did fortunately win on penalties. Yes, all our penalty takers scored convincingly (with the exception of Milik) but luck was more involved than our goalkeeper. Lukasz Fabianski only proved that the penalty shootout was not one of his finer netminder strengths. While absolutely brilliant in the full 120 minutes, he was anything but in the shootout. Rather clueless; taking dives of faith to the ground earlier than the penalty takers even shot the ball. The polar opposite to Switzerland’s Yann Sommer who predicted 4 out of the 5 penalties.

Luck was what bailed us out on the penalties, not Fabianski’s penalty shootout skills.

Flash forward to Thursday, June 30 and we are now playing Portugal in the Quarter-finals. Same story but with one tactical change – Milik replaces Lewandowski as the second striker. We go all out and begin to show the Portuguese how football is really played. By the second minute we are already in the lead thanks to an unleashed Robert Lewandowski, who no longer has to worry about playing behind the main striker. Nothing but freedom and presumed attacking possibilities.

Poland kept that energy up for a good fifteen minutes, constantly stressing and panicking the Portuguese backline. The Bialo-czerwoni were looking lethal and a second goal was almost imminent.

Nawalka, however, had other things in mind. He immediately ordered his players to drop back and defend the lead ala Switzerland game. At that point the Portuguese, whom were rightfully so enraged, began to press forward while we waited. Cue this for a good majority of the game and the scoreline is 1:1 after a Renato Sanches deflected equalizer. Nawalka was instead too worried about the risk of conceding and constantly chose to play it safe; a move his counterpart Fernando Santos had less importance weighing on.

Portugal were not afraid to attack and keep possession in the Polish field. Thankfully due to the strong ability of the Poland backline and Fabianski a second Portuguese goal was not scored – even though there were plenty of close calls. Sure, we had some counter attacks but they were at most used to move the ball out of our zone and give the defense a breather, rather than be considered any real goal threats. Why this ‘play it safe’ tactic, especially with our wonderful defense? Shows really how much Nawalka underestimated our back four.

Nonetheless, the game was already resembling a lot of how our play with Switzerland looked. We had the same number of days of rest as Portugal did, yet we were looking as the more fatigued side. Add our cautious play in chasing after the ball more than actually playing it and you got a team that is asking to lose due to vulnerability. When we did get the ball, very little was crudely done. Lewandowski was always found upfront by himself while everyone else stayed back. This meant that almost every ball that came his way was lost. On the flip side, when Cristiano Ronaldo received a ball he would always have options in either Sanches, Nani, and Silva. The Portuguese had no interest of staying home like the Polish.

Again, out of three substitutions, Adam Nawalka only used two. This time it was assumed he would be saving the last unused substitution for a goalkeeper switch as penalties were nearing.

Nope.

The penalty shootout came and Nawalka figured that instead of switching things up, he would piggyback on the same setup he used to win the shootout with Switzerland. You know, the game which had lady luck bailing us out.

Same penalty takers, whom the Portuguese studied based on their penalty kicks against Switzerland, and of course the same goalkeeper – Fabianski. It was clear in the previous game that Fabianski should not continue to hold the fort when it came down to penalties. With one more substitution still available, the only logical move would be to bring in a penalty kicks proven netminder such as Artur Boruc.

Not a novel idea, considering Louis van Gaal did just the same in the 2014 FIFA World Cup; switching Jasper Cillessen for Tim Krul in the penalty shootout against Costa Rica. Cillessen was the better keeper in regulation play, but Krul was far more proven in penalties. Same story here with Fabianski and Boruc.

Needless to say, Nawalka chose to not use his last unused substitution and hoped for the best by keeping Fabianski in. Things were different this time around as lady luck decided not to show up. Rui Patricio’s studying of the Polish penalties flourished as he ended up saving Jakub Blaszczykowski’s kick – which was exactly the same against Switzerland, this time with a little less confidence. As for Fabianski, the Portuguese took kicks as if he wasn’t even in net. No intimidation, no presence in net whatsoever. The kind of stuff that is needed to help win in these kinds of situations.

Would things have played out differently had Nawalka learned from his mistakes in the Switzerland game? Possibly. Not playing so cautiously and actually attacking almost relentlessly ala Leo Beenhakker’s 2006 Poland team that defeated Portugal 2:1 would have been ideal. A team with undoubtedly less talent and depth versus a much stronger Portugal than of this year. We can also take a page from Hungary’s group stage match with Portugal. They were also not afraid to keep attacking and it paid off for them. Granted, they conceded three goals in the process but they had a much weaker defense than Poland.

Would doing the tough decision and taking Lukasz Fabianski off in order to make room for Artur Boruc in the penalty shootout had made a difference? Hard to say, but at the very least it would have had certainly improved our chances of either saving a shot or at least intimidating a Portuguese shooter to miss. After all, Boruc is no newbie to winning competitive penalty shootouts for his team.

Clearly a lot of ifs and buts. However, that is just it. Had we really been the poorer team then Nawalka’s game plan would have had been the best we got then there would be no such complaints. If that were the case I would be happy with the result, no matter how weak it would be. The Poland team at UEFA EURO 2012 was weaker, our 2008 team was weaker and our 2006 team was weak. Yes, we tried to play it safe then too but it was justifiable as those teams had a lack of high level talent and skill.

Only that wasn’t the case this year, our team was the strongest it has been since the 80’s and really did have the potential to rightfully progress to the Semis. Instead, we were forced but to gamble on the ‘play it safe’ techniques of the old Polish teams and Nawalka’s stubborn loyalty towards Fabianski which ultimately had us leave the EUROs all but too soon.

The only message I have for Adam Nawalka or any new Poland coach is this: no risk, no reward.

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Pat Nowak
@PatricNova

Pat Nowak is a sports reporter covering Polish football at all levels, from the Ekstraklasa to the National Team. In addition to his work on PSN, Pat has previously written for ESPN.com and CTV Olympics.

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