After 12 years of waiting, Poland was finally able to watch its national team participate in the greatest football spectacle on Earth – the FIFA World Cup. Having topped their qualification group, recognized as the 6th best team in the FIFA rankings, and led by captain Robert Lewandowski – one of the best strikers in the game – its safe to say that expectations were quite high going into Russia.
Unfortunately, that joy did not last long as Adam Nawalka’s side were promptly eliminated early on in the tournament after having lost its first two games in the group stage. In addition, the team also faced harsh criticism for its lacklustre offensive game, predictable play, suspect defending, poor fitness levels along with a slew of other overall complaints regarding the team that resulted in the Central European nation experiencing its worst World Cup in history yet.
So, what exactly went wrong with Poland at the 2018 FIFA World Cup? Well, the answer is not simple but a combination of several reasons ranging from coaching itself all the way to the player personnel.
Sketchy team selections
Taking players to the FIFA World Cup based on reputation and name rather than form will always raise red flags on any team. Unfortunately, Adam Nawalka saw no problem in this. He picked players who had built his reputation in the international stage, completely disregarding whether they were playing games at their clubs or not. None of that was an issue to Nawalka, all he cared about was that they had brought him success at a major tournament before – so why not again? To make matters worse, he even decided to waste a spot on his 23-player roster on a player who was never meant to even play a single game.
That player was Slawomir Peszko, an out of form 33-year-old winger long past his prime with a notorious history with alcohol who plays on Lechia Gdansk, a team that barely avoided relegation in the Polish Ekstraklasa this past season. Peszko was only included for the sole purpose to create “a fun atmosphere” and be the party guy behind the scenes for Poland. His inclusion on the team was actually one that came as a recommendation of Robert Lewandowski, whose good friends with Peszko. While his addition to the team was good for Lewandowski, as he had the chance to hang out with his friend in Russia, it unfortunately was not good for the team footballing wise. This is because it limited Poland’s bench options, which as a result saw quality in-form players like Przyemslaw Frankowski, Sebastian Szymanski, Szymon Zurkowski, Taras Romanczuk, etc stay home.
So when starting winger Jakub Blasczykowski suffered an injury at half time in Poland’s first group game with Senegal, Nawalka was already surely regretting his decision when he had no suitable options off the bench. This in turn led to Nawalka oddly replacing Blasczykowski with Jan Bednarek, a centre-back when Poland was losing 0:1. Finally, Nawalka also pulled a “Italy-Giovinco” situation. Like in Italy, Gian Piero Ventura refused to call up in form Sebastian Giovinco due to the basis that he played in the MLS, a supposedly inferior league. Choosing to ignore Giovinco was one of the reasons which ultimately saw Ventura fail to qualify Italy for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. A bad mistake that surely other national team managers would had learned from? Well, not Nawalka who did the exact same mistake. In this case he snubbed Adrian Mierzejewski, who was the best Polish in form player at the time, all because he played in the Australian A-League.
Building off the last point, the bulk of the 2018 FIFA World Cup team (unlike the one at UEFA EURO 2016) were completely out form and coming off poor seasons. Poland’s squad was shockingly built off of players who either barely played or did not play at all. One notable example is Jakub Blaszczykowski, whose last competitive game played was back in November 2017. Apparently this wasn’t a big deal as Blaszczykowski appeared as a starter in Poland’s 2018 FIFA World Cup group opener against Senegal. It didn’t end there, as there were even some players on the roster who were just coming off injury/still injured. The players who that were in form were either left home or if they were chosen to go to Russia, then they were given a reserve status.
Limitations in coaching
Adam Nawalka was never a top tier candidate, but rather an average Polish coach plying his trade in Gornik Zabrze, a club then still bouncing between the Ekstraklasa and the 1 Liga. In fact, he was best known for his tactical limitations and overall stubbornness, having played the same losing squad over and over again until it had won. Thus, he was obviously not chosen for his pedigree, renown tactics, decision making or anything of that sort. Nope, it was more of the case that he was a decent local economical option and good friends with the Polish FA president, Zbigniew Boniek.
I still remember to this day how it was largely his fault Poland did not get farther at the UEFA EURO 2016. His ridiculous stubborn decisions like leaving Lukasz Fabianski in net for the penalty shootouts instead of subbing in penalty specialist Artur Boruc, or waiting far too long to make changes in the game with much needed substitutions – which even when he did make them, were at times questionable. However, a lot of that was brushed aside due to the team’s success in 2016, mainly due to Nawalka having the luck of managing a very in form team. Unfortunately, at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, he was not as lucky and his limitations as a coach got exposed hard.
Opting for last minute experimentation during the 2018 FIFA World Cup rather than in the exhibition games leading up to the tournament itself proved to be a costly gamble. Nawalka attempted to make this look as he was a genius tactician, but instead showed with each game that he was way over his head. Not only was he playing odd formations, such as fielding only 3 defenders – something that Poland have never done before – but there was also absolutely no game plan or strategy employed behind these decisions. Maciej Rybus after the 0:3 loss with Colombia confirmed this after telling media in a post-game interview that the team was never properly instructed on how or what to play.
Both the Poland team and the staff saw themselves as favourites in Group H and thought games against the likes of Senegal, Colombia and Japan would be a piece of cake. Thus going into the tournament, the Polish players were quite relaxed and comfortable. Perhaps a little too much. Players were coming into training camp late, and their wives and girlfriends were flown in as well for the players to have days off with them to go shopping in Sochi. Some even had their minds elsewhere rather focusing on playing football in Russia, such as Krychowiak who was preoccupied with opening his luxury shoe store in Warsaw.
To top things off, instead of training before their encounter with Senegal, Nawalka chose to take the team out to watch a dolphin show instead. Not exactly the recipe for success in an international sports competition that requires sacrifice, sweat and tears. Suffice to say, this all resulted in the team being poorly mentally and physically prepared for the tournament.
Divisiveness in the team
Team chemistry also took a major hit with several cliques being made within the Poland roster. The most famous one being Robert Lewandowski’s entourage, which featured Wojciech Szczesny and Grzegorz Krychowiak. They were well liked by Nawalka and could do no wrong, often times even granted preferred treatment because they were so close to the captain. Meanwhile, Kamil Glik’s and Lukasz Fabianski’s group was one that stood against Lewandowski’s and that caused dangerous divisions that not even Peszko could bandage up. Polish FA president Boniek later revealed that while before many players likened the opportunity to play with Lewandowski on the national team, those days had sadly passed and now it is quite the opposite.
In short, it is clear that Nawalka had lost his way with this team. The players no longer respect or want to play for him, as well he has no idea what he is doing either as a figure in charge. Even if he had any ideas that could had helped, his “nice guy” persona ended up failing him and instead be pushed around by Lewandowski and friends into making decisions that only favoured them.
While Nawalka, as a Polish coach in this modern generation surely brought a lot of positivity for football in Poland that will never be forgotten, his epoch as national team coach has long passed its expiration date. Now it is time for change, both in the coaching and players department.
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