Kane or Lewandowski? Southampton's Polish defender compares two of the deadliest finishers in the modern game, and explains how he now feels better equipped to beat the best...
By his own admission, Jan Bednarek needs to stop overthinking.
2019 was a busy year for the Polish defender, who missed only two minutes of Premier League action in Saints’ 38 games – the equivalent of an entire league season.
In the colours of his national team, Bednarek played the full 90 minutes in nine out of ten matches, winning seven of those as Poland secured their place at the European Championships, where he could come up against Saints teammates Shane Long and Michael Obafemi in Dublin, should Republic of Ireland come through the play-off route unscathed.
The relentlessness of his schedule is a compliment, and in stark contrast to 2018 – a year of great highs, scoring on his Premier League debut against Chelsea and at the World Cup, but ultimately too many false dawns to satisfy Bednarek’s ambition, as he found himself out of the first-team picture and topping up his minutes in the Under-23s.
“I played nearly all the games, so I think it was a very intensive year for me, but it was also a great year for me because I started playing constantly,” he reflects on 2019.
“I learned lots of lessons and lots of improvements. There were tough moments and good moments, with a lot of ups and downs, but I think summing up this year I became a stronger and better player, and a better person.
“For every player, the best thing to do is to play games. Obviously when you don’t play, when you’re on the bench or out of the team, you suffer without the adrenaline of the game.
“I think that’s what you miss most when you are out of the team, or out of the squad. That’s what I felt when I was out of the squad.
jan bednareki've become stronger mentally and now nothing can break me down.
“I played with the Under-23s but it’s not the same adrenaline, not the same atmosphere on the pitch.
“I think I played these games more for fitness and not for football improvement or skills improvement. It’s a tough time and there are bad moments, but you need to keep going.
“When the chance comes, you need to be ready to take it and to stay in the team. That’s what I did.
“I think it was very difficult, but it only improved me as a person and as a football player. I’ve become stronger mentally and now nothing can break me down.”
Now established in the red and white of club and country, Bednarek feels his influence growing.
“I think it became a little bit different,” he explains. “At the beginning, when I started to play, no one expected a lot from me. Now when I start to play constantly, the pressure is bigger.
“I also think I should give a lot to the team. It’s normal when you start to play in the starting eleven – you have to give more to the team and become a leader. That’s natural and I’m trying to do that. I try to help the team as much as I can.
“That’s football. If you become a more experienced player, you have to give more to the team, you have to be more of a leader, you have to talk more, you need to help more with your teammates.
“That’s the normal next step – nothing extraordinary. It’s just the normal step for football players and the normal step in terms of improving.
“I also think that is part of being a centre-back. It’s about helping the team, not only in playing football, but also by helping the players with communication. These are small things, but they are more important for a centre-back.
“We can see a lot – we can see things that sometimes midfielders or full-backs can’t always see. That’s part of being a good centre-back – you talk a lot, and you help a lot by talking.”
Communication is key, Bednarek believes, and never more so than when facing the very best.
England captain Harry Kane boasts a formidable record against Saints, with nine goals in ten Premier League starts against them, scoring in each of the last six meetings between the clubs prior to the New Year’s Day showdown at St Mary’s, in which he hobbled off injured.
In spite of the statistics, it’s a challenge Bednarek relishes. Perhaps the most natural comparison between Kane and any other striker in world football is with Poland talisman Robert Lewandowski – similar in size, similar in style, similar in efficiency.
In fact, Kane’s 176 club goals over the last five and a half years, averaging 32 a season, is put in the shade somewhat by Lewandowski’s staggering 230.
The Pole hasn’t failed to hit 40 goals in a campaign since 2014/15, albeit in a more dominant domestic team, with Bayern Munich having won the Bundesliga every season since.
jan bednarekthey both show that scoring goals for them is like oxygen for people.
on harry kane and robert lewandowski
Bednarek doesn’t sit on the fence when asked to rank the pair, but hopes his experiences of testing himself against master marksman Lewandowski on international duty can help him halt Kane’s ruthless record at Saints’ expense.
“I think this is the kind of player who can take advantage of one second of missed concentration from you,” he says of Kane. “That’s how you see the best players in the world.
“He’s got everything – he’s got all the skills, he’s strong and he’s a great finisher with his right foot and left foot.
“For me, it’s a bit patriotic, but I think Lewandowski is a better striker. I think he’s a bit better with the ball and in creating chances for his teammates.
“I think they’re both quite similar, but there are small details that make Lewandowski a slightly better striker. A big shout out goes to both of them – they’re doing a great job, scoring loads of goals.
“They both show that scoring goals for them is like oxygen for people. They are both doing a great job.
“They are so consistent. You can see that through the years – they score a lot of goals each year. I think that’s how you can recognise the difference between a good striker and a great striker.
“I think it’s nasty to play against both of them and they’re great players. They force each other to be better players because there is also a bit of competition between them.
“Who scores more goals? I think that is how you recognise the big players because they are all so motivated to be the best – to show that they’re the best in their position.”
It’s difficult to quantify the value of training with world-class players, but Bednarek counts himself lucky to be in the same generation as Lewandowski, scorer of 61 international goals and counting.
Small details, he’s learned, are what gives his influential teammate the edge over his rivals.
“I think those are the things; proper touch, proper movement, proper body shape,” he says. “When you talk to him, he shows that the small details are very important in a top footballer.
“It’s important to listen to these kinds of guys because the small things can show you how to change your mind, to change the way you play.
“I think it’s very important not only to watch, but also to listen and learn how to do it properly – how to defend against these kinds of players. These small details can decide a game.”
It sounds like a lot to think about – something Bednarek is actively trying to avoid.
“My ambition means I try to be a perfectionist, so I think a little bit too much,” he admits. “I think I should relax a bit more, take time and chill. Not only stress, but also chill.”
Helping him achieve this will be his life away from football. Bednarek has been in Southampton for nearly three years now, and feels settled.
“I have family here, my girlfriend is here and we have a dog. I think it’s always good to have a balance between your football life and private life – to have a rest, not always to think about football,” he reasons.
“That’s what I do. When football is over, I try to go home and give my time to my family.
“I try to make them happy, because they’re here and trying to help me as a person to recover as well as I can to be ready for the next day. But it’s also to clear my mind.
“I think it’s also very important to us as football players when you are handling big pressure and you have a lot of stress, to just forget for a moment about football.”