When Paulo Sousa, the new Poland manager, feared that Robert Lewandowski would miss the World Cup qualifier against England at Wembley because of coronavirus quarantine rules, it was the prompt for an emotional plea.
“The best players absolutely need to be on the pitch and especially during this pandemic when football takes an important role for the majority of families,” Sousa said. “Because football is emotion and, if you can feed people with all the emotions that football transmits, you can reduce all this mental instability in these families, especially for 90 minutes. Having all the best players available is better for life at this moment.”
Lewandowski was granted an exemption from the mandatory 14-day quarantine that he faced upon his return from the United Kingdom to Germany, where he plays for Bayern Munich, and the relief in Poland was palpable. And yet the story would twist again, with the forward damaging his knee in the 3-0 win over Andorra on Sunday night to put him back out of the England tie.
It has been impossible to disentangle the superstar striker from this game. The billing had been England’s Harry Kane against Lewandowski, England against Lewandowski’s Poland or, frankly, England against Lewandowski. Now there is a gap, a big one, and the balance of power has tilted firmly in England’s favour.
The optimists in Poland have noted how the fabled Wlodzimierz Lubanski missed the World Cup qualifying trip to Wembley in 1973 because of injury and everybody knows how that worked out. Could Lewandowski’s absence actually be a sign? The reality, though, is that being without him is not better for Sousa’s life or anybody else in the Poland camp.
Gareth Southgate remains wary. The England manager knows that Poland are not ranked 19th in the world because of one player. Sousa can call upon Napoli’s Arkadiusz Milik, who is on loan at Marseille, and Krzysztof Piatek of Hertha Berlin – strikers of pedigree, who Southgate namechecked at his pre-match media briefing, along with the midfielder, Piotr Zielinski, also of Napoli.
Lokomotiv Moscow’s Grzegorz Krychowiak, meanwhile, is back in after returning a negative Covid test. The midfielder had tested positive on Tuesday morning and, at that point, he was out. Sousa has had to contend with chaos.
For Southgate, it is all about the focus and professionalism of his players, of not beginning to assume anything. Perhaps, the last 15 minutes of Sunday’s 2-0 win over Albania in Tirana remain on his mind, when he felt that his players switched off a little and he told them so. It was a well-timed reminder of the need to keep up standards.
Balance is the buzz word in every sense. Southgate must manage the unusual situation of needing to win or, certainly, not lose a crucial World Cup qualifier and, at the same time, fine-tune his options ahead of the delayed Euro 2020 finals in the summer. When he next names a squad, it will be for the tournament, and it was significant to hear Declan Rice agree that the visit of Poland represented a final audition.
Southgate, for his part, made the point that “if we are not taking charge of the [World Cup qualifying] group tomorrow … this young group of players won’t get the opportunity to play at a major finals. We have to make sure we get that right.”
Arguably the most urgent question facing Southgate relates to the balance of his team, between the numbers of attacking and defensive players in it, which takes in whether to play an extra midfielder or three centre-halves and the broader notion of how important it is to entertain as opposed to simply win.
Rice is an interesting talking head on the topic, not least as he is a part of a West Ham team that seems to have eschewed the club’s traditional way and concentrated instead on well-drilled, winning football. They sit fifth in the Premier League.
Rice said he sometimes found himself marvelling in training at the attacking talent in the England squad – “gobsmacked” was the word he used – and he mentioned how much he enjoyed watching his England teammate Phil Foden play for Manchester City. But what it was about now, he added, was “going out on to the international stage and putting it into a trophy”.
Southgate is under pressure to include Foden, Mason Mount and Jack Grealish at the Euros – and play a back four rather than a three – but whichever way you slice it, that looks difficult, particularly while he retains faith in Raheem Sterling, Kane and Marcus Rashford as his front three. Could Mount play alongside Rice in a central midfield two against the best opposition? Southgate appears unconvinced. Would he play Foden or Grealish in No 8 or even No 10 roles? Unlikely.
It comes back to balance and, also, mentality. “There are certain factors that make winning teams,” Southgate said. “To recognise stages of games when to make the right decisions – when to keep possession, when to rest with the ball, [when] to not allow the opposition’s counterattacks by some of your positioning.
“When I’ve watched the French and Portuguese, teams that have won, they are savvy and experienced. That’s something we have to add.
“We have an environment I like, with senior players who are happy to share information and help the young ones to develop but we have to deliver. That’s the next challenge for this team.”