For the majority of the world, the month of January represents a new beginning: The transition from the end of one year (and the festive holiday period, for most), towards the next calendar year and a fresh start with newly found energies. In the football world, likewise, January serves as an opportunity for a much-needed winter/summer break in many leagues, but more importantly – the opening of the transfer window and a chance for teams to re-assess their squads and provide necessary changes. This phenomenon creates a massive domino effect on the career paths of many players. Those who’ve impressed in the first half of the season, might find themselves moving on quickly to bigger teams, which in turn look to unload under-performing players from their lists.
One of the hottest commodities in this January’s transfer window is Genoa’s Polish striker Krzysztof Piątek. Although an unknown figure outside of his home country a mere 5 months ago, the 23-year-old provided a meteoric rise during the first half of the 2018/19 Serie A season. Now, as some of the continent’s juggernauts attempt to reshape their squads due to injuries or underachievement, the name of Piątek has been linked with the likes of AC Milan, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea. Not bad for an individual who was left out of his national team’s World Cup squad this summer. So, who is this newly high-rated trend of European football?
Thrown into the Deep Water
Piątek (pronounced pi-on-tek, meaning Friday in Polish) was born in the town of Dzierżoniów, nearby the Czech border and an hour away from the province capital, Wrocław. Rising through the ranks of local youth teams Dziewiątka and Lechia, he then signed in 2013 for nearby first division team Zagłębie Lubin, located 100 km from his hometown. The beginning for “Piona” wasn’t smooth, as he was inserted to the first team towards the end of the season and amidst a tough relegation battle. Zagłębie provided a dismal relegation playoff and have just fired coach Orest Lenczyk a few days earlier. Newly appointed coach Piotr Stokowiec’s first game in charge was versus fellow strugglers Cracovia Krakow, and he handed Piątek his first pro appearance as a substitute in a desperate attempt to come back from a 2-1 deficit. This gamble failed, and the same occurred in the next 3 games the kid was involved in, but the Lubin side kept on losing and were relegated with just 1 point and 1 goal in their final 7 games.
The following season, still under Stokowiec, Piątek played an important role in Zagłębie’s immediate return to the Ekstraklasa, as he scored 8 goals on route to promotion from first place, along with surname twin teammate, Lukasz Piątek (no family connection between the two). Year 3 proved to be even more successful, as the Lubin side incredibly finished in 3rd place and qualified for the Europa League, this time finishing the season with 5 victories in a row and positioning themselves right ahead of Cracovia Krakow who have finished 4th. However, in an ironic twist of fate, in the summer of 2016, Piona transferred to no other than Cracovia, the team he made his debut against two years earlier. In the much bigger and famous city of Krakow, Piątek was exposed to larger expectations, more attention and a different type of pressure he was used to up until that moment. On the personal level, the striker has provided a new level of goal scoring ability, notching 32 in two seasons. However, the team struggled, barely surviving in the league in the first year and obtaining a routine mid-table finish in the second.
Colony of Poles
Piątek’s impressive 2017/18 campaign wasn’t enough for him to receive a spot in Adam Nawałka’s 23 player list for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Although he was considered in the preliminary list of 35, the competition in the national team was clearly too tough with names such as Robert Lewandowski, Arek Milik and Łukasz Teodorczyk all fighting for the striker role. Eventually, the Biało-Czerwoni were one of the big disappointments of the tournament and were knocked out in the group stage, but Piątek was rewarded that summer with a lucrative 4 million Euro transfer to Italian side Genoa. In recent years, a swarm of young talented Polish players are recruited and given an opportunity to prove themselves in Serie A: Arek Milik, Piotr Zieliński, Kamil Glik, Dawid Kownacki, Karol Linetty and Mariusz Stępiński to name a few – all trying to follow the footsteps of legends such as Zbigniew Boniek, who starred for Juventus and Roma in the 1980’s.
6 months after moving to Stadio Luigi Ferraris, Piątek might have a case for being the most in-form Polish striker currently and one of Europe’s top prospects. His numbers and records speak volumes: 19 goals in 21 appearances, and 13 in 19 league games, second in the division only to the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo (who scored twice as many penalties). He provided the most prolific league start for a Genoa player since Juan Carlos Verdeal in 1948/49. Then, his 8 goals in 6 matches were the best start to a season by a debutant of any club since 1949/50. The following week, he became the first player since Gabriel Batistuta in 1994/95 to score in each of his first seven Serie A appearances. During his Genoa debut in the Coppa Italia, he scored 4 goals in 37 minutes. To top it all off, he scored in his second match for the national team vs Portugal in an UEFA Nations League tie in October, and a month later cemented his status among the Rossoblù fans as he scored an equalizer in the Derby della Lanterna against Sampdoria.
It will be interesting to see if in the remaining few weeks of the transfer window, “Piona” will already take his next step forward and move on from Genoa to a larger club that would expect him to change their season around and be a world class striker. One thing seems clear, no matter where, if Piątek would continue in this form, he might be in “Pole Position” as Robert Lewandowski’s heir as the national team’s go-to player, and the individual that will lead it forward towards the distant future in hopes of finally fulfilling the large amounts of potential existing in Polish football.