How Poland perfected the mould for the complete forward
Poland currently boast one of the most lethal strike forces in European football, if not the world.
In more modern times the Eagles have scarcely been accustomed to a world-class No.9, that is until Robert Lewandowski exploded onto the scene.
But as is customary with most of life’s great wonders there is always the dreaded apprehension of what next? What happens after Poland’s record goalscorer winds down his career and says goodbye to international football?
Some strikers have clung to the coattails of their former glory days, à la Claudio Pizarro for Peru or Eidur Gudjohnsen for Iceland. Well, Lewandowski need not worry, as there are two formidable forwards waiting in the ranks to take his mantle.
In fact, the Bayern Munich marksman isn’t even guaranteed a starting berth for his nation, as Krzysztof Piatek and Arkadiusz Milik have been making significant noise themselves, giving head coach Jerzy Brzeczek the ultimate managerial headache.
Piatek has been irresistible since relocating to AC Milan in January, while Milik has been equally clinical under the watchful eye of Carlo Ancelotti in Naples.
The immediate forecast now looks promising in the post-Lewandowski era, but how did Poland perfect the mould for the complete forward?
A traditional goalscorer in every sense of the word, Lewandowski is as close to clinical perfection as there is in modern football.
Blessed with an exceptional vision and instinctive positional awareness, the 30-year-old is much more than a simple poacher, but rather an archetypal No.9, and a standard-bearer for the traditional centre-forward.
At club level Lewandowski is deployed as a lone striker, a role he performs to great effect, giving opposition defenders plenty of food for thought so his attacking teammates have more space to get in behind.
A three-time winner of the ‘kicker Torjagerkanone’ – Bundesliga’s top scorer award – Lewandowski has scored goals aplenty across his career, be it with Znicz Pruszkow and Lech Poznan in his homeland, or on German soil with Bayern and Borussia Dortmund.
But it is no wonder how Lewandowski finds the back of the net so often, coupled with world class teammates who can pick a pass, his goalscoring attributes speak volumes.
This season in the Bundesliga no player has taken on more shots (101), scored more goals inside the box (17), registered more headed shots (22), converted more big chances (16) or – and perhaps most significantly – had more touches in the opposition box (217) than Lewandowski.
It is one thing to have world beaters alongside you, but as a striker you still need to be getting yourself in the right places at the right times – Lewandowski does that in abundance.
But it is not just his goalscoring prowess that stands out, as no striker has created more assists from open play (7) than Lewandowski, who also boasts the second-most big chances created (12) and third-most chances created from open play (38), showing he is the complete forward who, not only takes the spotlight for himself at times, but also has an innate propensity to provide.
After Lewandowski, Milik is the preferred choice to lead the Poland lines. When Brzeczek opts to deploy a two-man strike pairing, it is often the Naples man alongside Lewandowski.
And there is solid reason why Milik is often ranked ahead of Piatek in Brzeczek’s starting XI, as he has been scintillating at the San Paolo Stadium this term, helping Napoli to second in Serie A.
Upon signing for the Parthenopeans following a blistering campaign in the Dutch capital with Ajax, Milik tore his anterior cruciate ligament which has stunted his progress in Southern Italy.
However, this season he has come of age, truly fulfilling his potential and lighting up Italy’s top division like many were expecting.
Milik is something of an all-round forward, an out-and-out striker who uses his speed and physical prowess to both create and score goals. A player in the mould of Robin van Persie, the versatile Pole can be used on the wing or even behind the striker.
But it is through the middle where he truly thrives. For Napoli this season Milik has found the back of the net 15 times in Serie A, with his goals per 90 minutes – for players who have played over 10 matches – a league high at 0.9 – more than Fabio Quagliarella and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Milik also boasts the second-best shots on target per 90 minutes (2.1), as well as having scored the most goals from outside the box (5). But it is that first statistic that really stands out – of strikers to play over 20 matches in Serie A Milik has the fourth-best conversion rate (23.08%) and boasts a commendable 56.92% shooting accuracy.
What’s striking is that Milik ranks 20th for most touches in the opposition box but has scored the sixth-most goals from within 18-yards, showing just how clinical he is; give Milik a slight modicum of goal and he will duly convert.
Piatek completes this terrifying triumvirate, and he is the new kid on the block, rising to meteoric prominence this season after his potent Genoa form fostered a move to the San Siro in January.
There may have been some concerns Piatek was just a flash in the pan given his short time at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, having only signed for Genoa last summer, but that is certainly not the case, as he has slotted seamlessly into his new surroundings and has been scoring at will for the Rossoneri.
At 23, Piatek is seen as the long-term successor to Lewandowski, such is his natural ability to score goals, as well as his intelligent movement and penchant for scoring with any part of the body.
And the proof is in the Piatek pudding as no player has scored more goals from open play in Serie A this season (16), while he ranks third for shots on target (41) as well as third for big chances converted (12).
The Milan marksman is evidently clinical, but his link-up is equally impressive, as he has the ability to drop deep, into the middle third and create space for his teammates to run into, which was the hallmark of the split-striker system utilised at Genoa.
With Gennaro Gattuso’s men, he has demonstrated a similar tactical nous, proving that he is much more than just a fox in the box. And with Milan currently enjoying a relative renaissance this season, Piatek is the man leading that charge, and one that Italy’s sleeping giants hope will one day emulate the fabled footsteps of Andriy Shevchenko – who has already called him the “heir” to his Milan throne – and take the club back to Italian dominance.
It is difficult to see how Brzeczek will maximise all three strikers at his disposal, but with his sensational trident all at intermittent ages (30, 25 and 23 respectively) he is set to be blessed with at least one world-class No.9 for the next decade.
These are certainly exciting times for Poland, with the nation in the very unique and rare position of possessing three complete forwards. Coupled with some excellent players further back in Piotr Zielinski and Karol Linetty, not to mention Wojciech Szczesny between the sticks, Poland could be a significant threat in tournaments to come.