England may have exceeded expectations on Friday when they dismantled Montenegro, but automatic qualification still rests on securing victory against Poland.
Poland were unfortunate in their 1-0 defeat to Ukraine, punished by Andriy Yarmolenko for a basic individual defensive error- unrepresentative of their performance- which more than matched Ukraine.
This could be the last time Waldemar Fornalik takes charge of Poland, and with a staggering 18,000 Poles making the trip to Wembley, there’s sure to be an intensity about the game.
Fornalik has stated that he’s only thinking ‘of the points and a win… nothing else will do’, and with Dortmund duo Robert Lewandowski and Jacub Blaszczykowski leading their line, England will need to be on guard against a resurgent side.
It would be surprising if Roy Hodgson changed his system too dramatically given its vindication on Friday.
That said, Kyle Walker is now suspended and will be replaced by either Phil Jones or Chris Smalling. Jack Wilshere may be given a start (potentially on the left as opposed to in midfield), while Michael Carrick may be preferred to Frank Lampard to partner Steven Gerrard in the centre.
Out wide, Andros Townsend repaid the faith shown in him with a strong performance, and tactically made a decent impact on England’s play. With Danny Welbeck cutting in from the left and Daniel Sturridge dropping surprisingly deep, the centre of the pitch became congested.
Montenegro’s holders sat deep in front of their back four, and England looked one dimensional and uninspiring, unable to work any form of opening. Although we’ve become accustomed to Townsend cutting in on his left foot for Spurs this season, his ability to hug the touchline and stretch play opened Montenegro up, and this was the direct cause of Rooney’s opener and England’s breakthrough. It’s important that Hodgson maintains this attacking balance.
Dortmund’s duo of Blaszczykowski and Lewandowski will be perceived as Poland’s main threat, but Fornalik will suffer without their third counterpart Lukas Piszczek. Had Piszczek been fit, England might have had to make a plan to nullify the strength of Poland’s right flank, especially with Welbeck playing a relatively aggressive role further up the pitch on the left.
Since the return of Luiz Suarez to Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers has spoke of his desire to play both him and Sturridge as ‘9 and a halfs’, both capable of leading the line and dropping into space. The term ‘9 and a half’ is an excellent way of describing Lewandowski’s movement. In England’s 1-1 draw in Warsaw last October, Lewandowski came so deep to get the ball that he nearly looked like he’d been asked to perform as a false 9. If Fornalik plays a 4-4-2 again, then strike partner Waldemar Sobota will have space to work with, particularly if Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka become too hung up on tracking Lewandowski’s runs up the pitch.
Elsewhere, Southampton’s Artur Boruc will probably maintain his starting spot ahead of Wojciech Szczesny in goal, while holder Eugene Polanski could return to keep a watchful eye on Wayne Rooney at the foot of Poland’s midfield.
Leighton Baines will have to keep a watchful eye on Blaszczykowski when surging forward. Against Ukraine, Blaszczykowski (despite being right footed) tended to cut inside with great pace before offloading the ball, and Baines will need to show him down the flank away from danger. If England can nullify Poland’s right flank, then Lewandowski will lose his primary creator, and become starved of the ball.
If Lewandowski does become starved of the ball (a likely outcome given the fact England will probably outnumber Poland in the centre of midfield and therefore dominate possession), then expect the striker to drop deeper and deeper into midfield to grow into the game. If this does happens, then (a) Cahill and Jagielka mustn’t be drawn out with him leaving space in behind and (b) Steven Gerrard (and whoever partners him) need to keep England in a coherent shape of two banks of four to maintain a rigid defensive mould.
A defensive minded England is what we’ve come to expect from England under Roy Hodgson’s tenure. His decision to express his anxiety about the match in his pre match conference might be suggestive of a slightly more conservative approach to this game. That said, England simply have a far superior team to Poland in nearly every position. Providing they don’t let the occasion get to them, there’s no reason at all to doubt their advancements to Brazil next summer.