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European Championship

Two goals in 12 tournament games: Why can't Poland get the best out of Lewandowski?

08:00 BST 19/06/2021
Robert Lewandowski Poland 2021
The Bayern Munich star has struggled to replicate his club form on the international stage, with his team again facing early elimination at Euro 2020

Poland fans have grown used to big tournament disappointment, and yet even they were not prepared for their sides's miserable start to Euro 2020.

Supporters have been left in a state of shock and anger after their opening Group E loss to Slovakia, as they yet again totally failed to use Robert Lewandowski properly.

The Bayern Munich star was considered a world class striker ahead of Euro 2016, but only scored once during the tournament when the Poles lost to Portugal on penalties in the quarter-finals.

His prestige was even higher ahead of the 2018 World Cup, when many considered Poland to be the dark horses, but Lewandowski failed to find the net as the team crashed out at the group stages. 

Nowadays, there is total consensus that Lewandowski is the best central striker in the world, and would have been the obvious choice to win the 2020 edition of the Ballon d'Or. 

His output at major tournaments, though, is woeful.

The superstar did not have a shot on target on Monday when Poland deservedly succumbed 2-1 to an organised Slovakia side who were supposed to be the weakest team in the group. His record at major finals now reads as two goals in 12 appearances.

Poland's chances to reach the last 16 are now minimal, and the criticism of the team was understandably severe back home.

The Przeglad Sportowy newspaper humorously took the letters U and A out of the coach Paulo Sousa's name – leaving only SOS on their front page. They recalled quotes from the coach himself ("Poland can achieve fantastic results") and the FA president Zbigniew Boniek ("The team is well prepared ahead of the tournament"), only to state that the opening fixture ended in a "shameful defeat".

It must be said that Sousa was a extremely unusual choice to lead the team. Fans were not upset when Boniek belatedly decided to sack hugely unpopular Jerzy Brzeczek in January, but his replacement raised a number of eyebrows.

Sousa, whose record at club level had never been too impressive, became only the second foreign Poland national team coach in history after Leo Beenhakker, who was in the role between 2006 and 2009.

His main target was to work in harmony with Lewandowski – something that Brzeczek emphatically failed to achieve – but he also brought with him a totally new style that needed to be implemented just a few months before the tournament, with little to no time to make his ideas work properly.

"Sousa wants to play possession football and dominate games, but our players might be incapable of performing that way," TVP Sport journalist Radoslav Przybysz tells Goal. "He is rigid and not flexible. There is no plan B.

"We can't play on the counter, and we don't have an idea how to play at set-pieces."

The Portuguese might be stubborn as far as style is concerned, but he has been wildly inconsistent with his lineups, failing to achieve any kind of stability ahead of the Euros.

"Sousa is changing his lineups all the time, he has no clear concept, and there is an impression that he has no idea how to play," Marek Wawrzynowski wrote in the Sportowe Fakty newspaper. "In six games, there were five different formations.

"One hopes that he doesn't choose them by rolling a dice!"

Mateusz Miga of TVP Sport, meanwhile, blamed Boniek for getting everything completely wrong: "You decided to hire a coach who wanted to rebuild our football identity. We all silently believed that it would succeed. Today we see how naïve that approach was."

In an emotional column that summed up the nation's feelings, Miga stated: "Poland are most likely to lose nowadays. Just give us the ball and wait for us to hurt ourselves".

He was especially critical of the inability to provide any service to their star striker.

"It is all very simple. The main task of the Polish team is to give Lewandowski two or three chances to score in every game. We can't do that.

"Lewandowski played 12 games at major tournaments and scored two goals in them. He had just seven clear scoring opportunities. Just seven in 12 games, none at all against Slovakia.

"We are a caricature, a funny team that is incapable of managing the best striker in the world."

Wawrzynowski added in his own piece on the ex-Borussia Dortmund star: "We certainly expected more from Lewandowski. He should have been involved in the game, moved backwards and look for the ball. He didn't do it, and at the same time our opponents did a magnificent job of marking him in the penalty area."

Speaking to Goal, Wawrzynowski explains: "Lewandowski doesn't possess technical skills to decide games on his own like Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi or Neymar. He is a team player, who is hard working and very intelligent.

"At Euro 2016, he kept two defenders busy all the time, and thus Arkadiusz Milik had enough chances to become the tournament's top scorer – but failed to take them.

"Lewandowski brings extra quality, and scored a lot in the qualifiers, but during the tournaments themselves the level is higher, and he needs to be supported."

That definitely was not the case against Slovakia, when Lewandowski was used as a sole striker, partly because of Milik's untimely injury on the eve of the tournament. 

Sousa now needs to try and find solutions against Spain on Saturday. A truly sensational performance will be needed to avoid another fiasco.

Poland fans don't believe in miracles at this stage, however. They have experienced enough disappointments in recent times not to nurture any false expectations again.