World Cup One to Watch: Piotr Zielinski – Poland
One of the bright sparks of Napoli’s midfield looks set to light up the international stage this summer
Cultured doesn’t cut it for a midfielder who will look to prove that Poland are much more than just Robert Lewandowski this summer.
Zielinski has always been one of those under the radar players. He took the leap into Italian football at the age of just 18 by joining Udinese for what now looks to be a bargain price of just £90,000. Though the move from Lubin in Poland to Udine in northeast Italy was never quite right for him, a two-year loan to Tuscany showcased what this prodigious midfielder was capable of.
Even though he played something of a bit-part role at relative minnows Empoli in first season, the Tuscan club soon realised that they had a real player on their hands. In his second full season at the club he appeared 35 times in Serie A, and his performances caught the eye of clubs like Liverpool who were heavily linked with him in the summer of 2016.
But Campania came calling, and Zielinski became a mainstay of one of Europe’s most exciting midfields at Napoli. Again an absolute steal at £12.6 million, Zielinski was the missing piece in Sarri’s high tempo-one touch attacking system, completing a midfield featuring the combative defensive talents of Allan, and the calming influence of Manchester-bound Jorginho. Napoli’s thrilling brand of attacking football caught the imagination as they finished runners up in the Serie A title race.
It looked for all the world that Napoli’s modest resources might finally end Turin’s stranglehold on the Scudetto. No such luck as even victory away at the Old Lady couldn’t bring Napoli its first title in 28 years. But few who watched Napoli last season could fail to be swept away by their high-octane style that had Italy’s fifth richest club punching well above its weight.
For all his undoubted ability, Zielinski found playing harder to come by than any other regular in the Napoli midfield, playing just over half of all the available minutes in Serie A this season, many of them from the substitutes’ bench.
Yet whenever Zielinski stepped onto the Partenopei pitch, he instantly became one of Napoli’s most influential players. Despite playing only around half of the time, he still made at least one key pass on average per match for the Italian runners-up, who scored the second most goals in the league last season at seventy-seven.
It’s easy to be put off by his less-than eye-catching two league assists last season. But Zielinski is the sort of player who assists the assister. 50% of all the league goals Napoli scored while he was on the pitch featured a Zielinski pass somewhere in the buildup.
His form for Italy’s entertainers shows just how well he can thread together an attack. Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne, and José Callejón will have loved the creative freedom a player like Zielinski can give them.
Their defence won’t have minded him much either. Napoli’s is a midfield of technically capable protectors of the ball, and Zielinski is no anomaly in there. He’s exactly the kind of player who can launch a counterattack, all the while preventing the opposition from launching one of their own.
Just under 90% of Zielinski’s passes in the league found their target: an impressive number given the speed at which Napoli advance with the ball. He is the player who can make the right decision and execute it in the blink of an eye.
He is also a frustratingly difficult player to separate from the ball. His almost unerring first touch meant that he hardly ever gave possession away cheaply: less than once a game, on average. He’s no slouch either, and his outstanding technique allows him to glide past players with ease. Few young central midfielders in Europe can change the focus of an attack quite like he can.
So don’t be put off by his two league assists last season. It might seem a paltry return, but Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and José Callejón will have loved playing alongside him. His form for Italy’s entertainers shows just how well he can keep an attack moving.
Since making the jump up from youth level to represent his country five years ago, Zielinski has already won 31 Poland caps at the age of just 24. He’s quickly established himself as one of the best players in a talented international side that should be looking to top its group this year.
Though international goals have been scarce, two of his four at the expense of lowly San Marino in qualifying, his role in this Poland team is different to the one he plays at Napoli.
Adam Nawalska’s favoured three at the back formation allows Poland to field more of their attacking talents in the same team. Zielinski has often played a versatile role, sometimes as a holding player in a midfield two, and more recently on the right hand side of the attacking midfield supporting superstar Robert Lewandowski.
The overlapping wingbacks allow Zielinski to drift inside and influence proceedings form a more central position. If he can strike an understanding with the Bundesliga’s top scorer, then Poland might fancy their chances of featuring in the latter stages of this year’s tournament.
Poland will also be relieved to have avoided all the World Cup’s big hitters at this early stage, in what is easily the most unpredictable group at this year’s tournament. With few standout candidates among Japan, Colombia and Senegal’s ranks, it could allow an attack featuring Robert Lewandowski and clubmate Arkadiusz Milik, all bolstered by Zielinski, to really express itself.
One factor that makes Zielinski such an asset to Poland is his versatility. His ability to make the right pass even at high tempo means he can dictate play from deeper, and his fleet of foot makes him a more than capable influence higher up the field and in the wider positions too.
Poland have a player who can help them adapt the demands of individual fixtures, which will make them a frustrating opponent to come up against this summer. Though Zielinski’s average goal-scoring figures, and his side’s reliance on their world-class centre forward, risks making the Poles a touch predictable.
His greatest strength is not his passing, but his vision. Unlike teammate Jorginho, he does not tend to rely on long passing to break through defences. Instead, he prefers to break into the final third before bamboozling defenders with deft short passes that few players in the world could ever think of.
The intelligence he has combined with Lewandowski’s movement could help to make this the best Poland side since their third-placed finish in 1982. A possible first knockout round tie against England or Belgium awaits.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group C in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.