Poland 1-1 Russia: Poland beef up their midfield and prevent Russia counter-attacking
Neither side played particularly open football – but strangely, this turned out to be a very good contest.
Wojciech Szczesny was suspended, so Franciszek Smuda continued with Przemyslaw Tyton, the hero of the first game, in goal. More interestingly, he changed the structure of his side, moving to more of a 4-1-4-1 formation, dropping left-winger Maciej Rybus in favour of a solid holder, Dariusz Dudka. Ludovic Obraniak moved to the left.
Dick Advocaat continued with the XI that hit four goals in Russia’s opening day win over the Czech Republic. Aleksandr Kerzhakov retained his place upfront despite Roman Pavlyuchenko’s impact from the bench – Kerzhakov’s finishing had been wayward, but his movement and link-up play was excellent, and he deserved his place here.
Neither side took the initiative and both looked to prevent the other counter-attacking. Smuda was reactive with his approach and fairly negative, but his tactics worked well.
Dudka could have been accommodated within Poland’s 4-2-3-1 had Smuda wished to continue with that system, with Rafael Murawski moving higher up the pitch and watching Igor Denisov. But Smuda chose the more defensive approach, effectively fielding three holding midfielders in front of his defence.
Although ‘defensive’ in basic terms, it actually made Poland more fluid on the counter-attack. In the opening game, both Murawski and Eugen Polanski sat solidly ahead of the defence and left attacking to the other four players, plus Lukasz Piszczek moving forward from right-back.
Here, with Dudka as the insurance policy, those two players had license to join the attacking trio when Poland won the ball, and both popped up on the edge of the box to partake in the attacking combinations.
Russia breaks thwarted
But this was a move predominantly designed to stop Russia from playing. Smuda had seen how smooth Russia’s counter-attacking was against the Czech Republic, and how the Czechs suffered hugely from not having a designated holding midfielder in position to tidy up in front of the defence. In that game, Russia played excellent combinations through their midfield triangle, which generally ended with either Roman Shirokov or Alan Dzagoev finding space between the lines.
Not only did Poland put Dudka rigidly in that zone, they also dropped their midfield deep, and prevented Russia from getting space between the lines, even in the positions either side of Dudka, where Andrei Arshavin and Dzagoev like to work. Dudka, Polanski and Murawski worked as a trio and communicated well, but generally kept their shape and weren’t dragged around by the rotation of Shirokov and Konstantin Zyryanov.
Russia couldn’t move the ball forward quickly, and had to keep returning to Denisov, who was playing as the pivot in midfield. Poland didn’t attempt to close him down, and consequently Denisov completed by far the highest number of passes – 98, with Zyryanov the next highest on 68.
With the central midfield zone crowded, Russia looked forward to Kerzhakov much quicker. He continued to drift from side to side, particularly to the left, his favoured run at club level with Zenit. It helped that Piszczek was trying to advance down that flank to support Poland’s attack.
When Piszczek did so, Poland often shifted their other three defenders across, so Marcin Wasilewski became the right-back in a three-man defence. That, plus the three central midfielders, gave Piszczek freedom to get forward and combine with Jakub Blaszczykowski. This tested the defensive ability of Arshavin, and he generally tracked back and helped Yuri Zhirkov well.
On the other flank, Ludovic Obraniak – having started central and drifted wide in the opening game, did the reverse here. He moved inside into his favoured number ten position, and became involved in combinations with Blaszczykowski, Robert Lewandowski and the two central midfielders. Poland’s passing through the centre of the pitch was occasionally excellent, whereas in the first game they channelled everything down the flanks.
However, with both sides getting three-man midfields quickly behind the ball and playing on the break, it was going to take something very special to break down an organised opposition in open play. Russia’s goal came through Dzagoev, from a set-piece, shortly before half-time
Smuda surprisingly made no substitutions at half-time, but Poland played with more energy in the second half. They didn’t attempt to press the Russian centre-backs, but started the pressure on the halfway line, making some good tackles and launching quick breaks.
At this point, it seemed appropriate for Russia to become more cautious, with the full-backs staying in defensive positions. But this didn’t happen – shortly before Poland’s equaliser, Yuri Zhirkov was in the opposition penalty box trying to score a second goal. Russia’s endeavour must be admired, and the full-backs attacking is crucial for their system (regardless of the scoreline) but they were very cavalier at 1-0 up.
Zhirkov was in position for the equaliser, however. It was simply a fine equaliser from Blaszczykowski, who received the ball from Obraniak, who was breaking forward on the right flank despite nominally being the left-winger. The majority of Poland’s attacks went down the right, as the positions of their ’shot assists’ shows – despite Blaszczykowski being quiet until then, it seemed likely that if Poland scored, it would be from that flank.
The only significant substitution was from Smuda on 73 minutes. Dudka was withdrawn, Adrian Mierzejewski replaced him, so Polanski and Murawski dropped back to become the two holders. Mierzejewski went to the right to cut inside onto his left foot, and Blaszczykowski did the same on the other side. Obraniak became the number ten once more. It showed Poland’s intent to attack more, but Russia had the majority of the ball for the final 15 minutes, and a draw was fair.
Poland’s main intention was to frustrate Russia, and although they did try to get the winner late on, one suspects Smuda would have taken this result before the game – it means Poland will progress with a win against the Czech Republic on Saturday. Smuda now has a lot of important decisions to make, however – ranging from which goalkeeper he selects (it’s likely to be Tyton) to which formation he plays.
Russia’s Zenit-style counter-attacking in the first match was superb, but Zenit’s weakness against strong opponents has been a reliance upon counter-attacking. Here, Poland showed that Advocaat’s side are much less effective when the opposition pack the central midfield zone and keep it tight between the lines, but Russia remain strong favourites to top the group.