Just 144 days before the start of the Euros, Zbigniew Boniek, the chief of the Polish FA, one of the best players in the country’s football history, decided to turn everything upside down. Boniek, well known for his hotheadedness, sacked national team manager Jerzy Brzeczek. The team under his guidance had been reactive, defensive-minded, and Brzeczek couldn’t get the best out of our national treasure, the best player in the world (according to FIFA) Robert Lewandowski.
Less than five months before kick-off in Rome, the mission of building a new team was granted to Paulo Sousa, the former Portugal national team midfielder and a Champions League winner with Juventus and Borussia Dortmund.
Sousa was given five games to get to know his players and build a team capable of repeating Poland’s result from the previous Euros. In France they lost on penalties in the quarter-finals to Sousa’s compatriots and the eventual European champions, Portugal. After 2016, the expectation bar had been raised so high that after a disastrous World Cup in Russia (we didn't get out of the group, and Lewandowski didn't manage a single goal), the hangover has been tremendous. In fact, it has been so huge, that people have turned their back on national team.
Before Russia, players became household names and were literally everywhere – on billboards, TV commercials, the internet was filled with them and their stories, books have been published, documentaries were made. Before Euro 2020 there is no such a hype.
Today we observe Paulo Sousa looking for the optimal setting. In the five matches before Euro 2020, he fielded a different XI each time and the team came out in different tactical settings. He is also trying to change the characteristics of the squad – from reactive and defensively-oriented, relying only on counterattacks, to a side that feels good with the ball at their feet. The Portuguese is doing work that should normally have been done long before the tournament. Poland are sending a rally car for a race with the engineers still tightening the wheels, installing a turbocharger and a new gearbox almost as it begins. Perhaps they will make it in time, but maybe everything will fall apart if you press the gas pedal harder.
Sousa’s approach has been met with enthusiasm by the players. They also felt that Brzeczek’s team was in stagnation and was not evolving. Most of them play their club football in top European leagues, and have been working with some big names. Lewandowski is the best example – he started with Jurgen Klopp in Dortmund, then moved to Bayern Munich, where he met Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, Juup Heynckes and Hansi Flick. Ancelotti also worked with Piotr Zielinski at Napoli.
Grzegorz Krychowiak won Europa League with Unai Emery while at Sevilla, and when the Spaniard took the job at Paris Saint-Germain, the only player he took with him to France was the Polish midfielder. Both goalkeepers, Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski, worked with Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. The latter is now at West Ham United, and Szczesny is Cristiano’s Ronaldo’s team-mate at Juventus. Jan Bednarek is a regular in Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Southampton team. Polish players do know a lot about modern tactical approaches and current trends in beautiful game.
Sousa is experimenting with a hybrid, asymmetrical, formation. While attacking, they leave three central defenders behind, and when the opponent has the ball, they change to a back four with one of the forwards occupying space in midfield. The German website spielverlagerung.de calls Poland a team each tactical hipster should follow.
With Paulo Sousa at the wheel, Poland has lost only one of their last five games – against England at Wembley, conceding a late goal from Harry’s Maguire header. But there is another side of this coin, since in the same five games Sousa has won only once – against Andorra (158th in the FIFA ranking), and this was also the only game in which they have kept a clean sheet. His team couldn’t win against Hungary, nor Russia or Iceland, who are not exactly powerhouses of European football, to put it mildly.
And these are not results which would satisfy supporters who know that Lewandowski is in his prime and is having time of his life. He has just beaten a 40-year-old record held by Gerd Muller (Das Bomber scored 40 Bundesliga goals in 1972, whereas Lewandowski managed to put the ball in the net 41 times this season) which was believed to be unbeatable. FIFA named him the best player of 2020 and he would have easily been the first Pole to receive the Ballon d’Or if it wasn't for France Football deciding not to give an award for last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. That was a decision which made people in Poland furious.
Lewandowski is 32 years old and it might be his last chance to shine on this particular stage. In his two previous tournaments he managed to squeeze in only two goals – against Russia in 2012, on home soil, and four years later with Portugal. That’s three goals less than he scored against Wolfsburg in a nine-minute spell in 2015.
People feel that’s its high time for him to deliver, and to lead Poland to the quarter-finals at least. If Souza does not manage to build a team that allows Lewandowski to shine and score goals, no one will care about a hybrid formation or tactics for hipsters.