After failing to make it to either of the previous two World Cups, Poland will be glad to be in the tournament once again.
They’ll be hoping to make it further than the group stage, which is as far as they got in 2002 and 2006, but will be aware that they’re far from matching their best ever showing at the tournament, third place in both 1974 and 1982.
Group H sees them in what many think is one of the easier groups – alongside Senegal, Colombia, and Japan – and making it out could set them up with a round of 16 tie against England.
Road to the World Cup
Poland have entered into one of the easier World Cup groups having made it through one of the easier ones in qualifying as well. Denmark and Kazakhstan both took points off the Poles during qualification, but the latter finished bottom of the pack and Montenegro, Romania, and Armenia were all relatively easily cast aside.
They started slowly, with two of the more difficult games up first. Poland could only draw 2-2 in Astana while they needed a Robert Lewandowski hat-trick to beat Denmark 3-2.
But barring a 4-0 defeat to the Danes in the return tie, Poland hit their stride and won eight of their ten games, scoring 28 goals in the process.
It helps that they are largely unchanged since their strong showing at Euro 2016. They reached the quarter-finals in France, where they only lost to eventual champions Portugal on penalties, and had been leading after two minutes.
Despite this, the mood in Poland in the run-up to the tournament has been tempered with pessimistic realism. A group of Senegal, Colombia, and Japan is one where any side could feasibly go out, and the Poles know this.
Their pre-tournament friendlies saw a 1-0 loss against Nigeria and 3-2 win against South Korea in March – although the Poles were 2-0 up against the Koreans until the 85th minute. All the same, these were close matches against opponents of a similar quality to their Group H opponents.
Meanwhile, several key players – Kamil Glik, Arkadiusz Milik, and Robert Lewandowski – have all had injury problems which mean they may not be 100 per cent fit.
It’s been an easy route to the World Cup, but it’s not one that’s laid the foundations for optimism.
Generally, Poland have played a 4-2-3-1, but they have experimented with a three centre-back system in the pre-tournament friendlies.
This isn’t necessarily a sign of how they will line up in Russia, but appears to be an attempt to introduce an increased tactical flexibility to the side.
“We would like to introduce more tactical possibilities in our play,” manager Adam Nawałka told World Soccer, about his plans for the pre-tournament friendlies.
“Our base system is four defenders and we can still improve it. But we will test playing with three defenders in friendlies and then take the final decision. We would like to have an option which lets us make corrections in the tactical system even during the game or just before kick-off.”
Testing this system in friendlies makes sense, considering the lack of time that international sides have together – it’s not like they can experiment in training for weeks on end.
As with many 3-4-2-1 systems, it is occasionally vulnerable to being over-run in central midfield, although the attacking midfielders drop back in defence and possession more than in some other teams. The wing-backs are very much the source of width, the attacking players tending to stay very narrow, where they can combine together well.
But how much we’ll see that in Russia is anyone’s guess. From Nawałka’s words, it sounds like the 3-4-2-1 has been worked on to keep opponents guessing and, to be honest, it’s keeping us guessing as well.
Poland’s 2.8 goals per game in qualifying suggests that they might be a fun team to watch in the tournament. It should be said that the relatively easy group, combined with the star power of Lewandowski, made this easier, but it was still the fifth highest rate of the 31 teams who went through qualifying.
They also conceded 14 goals though, meaning they let in the joint most goals per game out of those 31, along with Peru.
Poland’s talent does tend to be further forward than their back-line. Lewandowski and Milik offer firepower; Piotr Zieliński, Kamil Grosicki, Grzegorz Krychowiak talent in midfield. Their best centre-back is Monaco 30-year-old Kamil Glik, who is a good defender but alone on that level of quality.
Their talent also tends to be old. Glik and right-backPiszczek, Poland’s other best defender, are both in their thirties, as is Jakub Błaszczykowski. At 29, captain Lewandowski almost looks young.
Unsurprisingly, Nawałka’s team are quite reliant on their star forward. He scored 16 of their 28 goals in qualifying and if he isn’t firing, Poland look a lot less threatening. Between his 3.8 shots and 1.6 key passes per 90, he contributed 36 per cent of the Poles’ shots in qualifying, a very sizeable chunk.
Star player: Robert Lewandowski
Lewandowski comes into the World Cup in good form, though. The Bayern Munich striker was getting chances worth 1.9 Expected Goals per 90 minutes from April to the end of the season when taking into account shot placement.
It topped off a great year for him in club football. The 29-year-old scored 29 goals in the equivalent of 24.1 games (2169 minutes), getting another five in Bayern’s run to the semi-finals.
One of the purest of pure strikers, he is more creative for his country than his club. 70 per cent of his shot contribution for Poland is through his own shots, the rest coming from shot assists. For Bayern Munich in the league last season, his shots (5.26 per 90) made up 87 per cent of his shot contribution, offering just 0.82 key passes per 90 minutes.
He’ll be hoping for a more productive World Cup than the tournament he had at the European Championship in 2016. There, he didn’t have a shot on target in the group stage at all, and the only game he scored in was the one they were eliminated, against Portugal.
Assuming he plays in both of Poland’s June friendlies, Lewandowski will enter the tournament on 95 caps. It would be a great way to become a centurion by taking his country deep into the tournament.
Manager: Adam Nawałka
Nawałka is one of the longest-serving international managers in Europe, having been in charge since October 2013, while he had also been an assistant to Leo Beenhakker at Euro 2008.
He played for Poland during the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. At just 19 years of age, the midfielder played five of the side’s six games as they progressed to the second group stage of the tournament.
It’s safe to say that he’s happy to be going to the world’s biggest football tournament once again.
“Being a part of your national team, at the stadium with white-and-red stands, hearing fans’ support, it is something beautiful,” he told World Soccer. “It’s worth living just for such moments.
“I believe that the World Cup will be very successful and give us more great emotions. You should have ambitious aims and try to realise your dreams. The most important thing is that the team develops.”
Sadly, his playing career was cut short when recurrent injuries forced him to retire in his late twenties after playing 190 games forand 34 times for Poland.
He didn’t start managing for a while, taking charge of his first team in the late 1990s, but he won the Polish League Cup with his old clubin 2001, before another stint in charge from 2006-07.
After the strong showing at the Euros and ease of qualifying for Russia there had been some hope that the quarter-finals might, again, be possible, this time on a bigger stage.
However, while Group H has no footballing superpowers, nor does it have any sides who can be seen as guaranteed points. It would not be a surprise to see Senegal, Colombia, or Japan in the knock-out stages, and it’s a collection of teams where zero points could be just as likely as nine.
Making the knock-out rounds would be a success, but failing to wouldn’t necessarily be seen as a failure.