It’s been around four years for Arsenal’s new signing, Jakub Kiwior.
In January 2019, the Polish centre-back was dismissed by Anderlecht academy without a senior appearance and was thrown into a relegation battle in Slovakia – a battle that ultimately ended in failure.
Since then, however, the 22-year-old has ended up scoring Lionel Messi at the World Cup, been identified as a future leader for his country and has now joined the Gunners’ Premier League title bid, having left the Serie A. Spezia Calcio for more than 20 million euros.
Kiwior, who has made 37 league appearances for Spezia since joining in the summer of 2021, is Arsenal’s second signing in the January transfer window – after Belgium winger Leandro Trossard – and will provide competition for William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes at the heart of the defence.
“I always remember donuts”
The switch from youth teams from Anderlecht to central Slovakia in January 2019 proved to be decisive for Kiwior’s career.
Four years ago, as a young Anderlecht academy defender, he didn’t get the chance to play for the club’s first team before signing for struggling small side FK Zeleziarne Podbrezova in the Slovak elite.
It was a far cry from her big football dreams, especially when Podbrezova lost her relegation battle and fell to the second division.
Michal Hanek, Podbrezova’s assistant coach at the time, told BBC Sport: “I knew that if Jakub stayed healthy he would play for a foreign club, in Italy or Germany.
“However, to be completely honest, I wouldn’t guess the Premier League and Arsenal. I’m surprised by this transfer – but in a very positive way.”
Hanek recalls when, after an initial training session, Kiwior joined his friend, Podbrezova goalkeeper Richard Ludha, to watch a local non-league match nearby.
“When I think of ‘Kiwi’, I always remember donuts,” says Hanek. “He went there after our training and I asked him what he ate for lunch. He said, ‘Doughnuts with jam’.
“It was funny and I laughed a little, but then I explained to him that as a pro you can’t eat donuts for lunch. He immediately accepted that he had to take care of his body. and his diet, and always tried to learn from the advice of the coaches.”
Despite relegation, Hanek believes Podbrezova has become a valuable learning ground for him.
He said: “Jakub had all the requirements of senior football. He had good physical qualities, was excellent in duels and as a young player he was already excellent thanks to his physical quality.
“He was already absorbing a lot of pressure. In important matches, it was visible that he was mentally very strong. He didn’t communicate too much and was rather introverted, but mentally very strong and was never afraid of difficult moments and opponents. tough.
“There were things to work on, though. He had a problem with the pace of the game, the organization of the defense, but it was clear that would improve when he started playing regularly.”
Slovakia proved to be an ideal place for his development as, due to lack of money, many local clubs relied on young players, who could get regular playing time and would end up earning transfer money. .
MSK Zilina, one of Slovakia’s most successful clubs and a breeding ground for the country’s national team, recognized his potential and signed Kiwior after Podbrezova was relegated.
“We systematically follow the young players of the Slovak championship,” explained a member of the management team of MSK Zilina. “We saw potential in him, and especially because he was left-footed. They’re valuable types of centre-backs. He had massive talent, so we worked hard to get him and that helped like [Podbrezova] got relegated.
“Kiwior adapted the fastest to senior football and I would also say he was the biggest talent.”
After playing a few games for Zilina’s reserves in the second division, he broke into the first team’s starting line-up and became one of their key players as they reached the Slovak Cup final.
“He became a leader in the dressing room. Sometimes he had the captain’s armband,” adds MSK manager Zilina. “He’s a nice guy without any conflict and he’s focused on football.
“He is very calm, but also takes on challenges and he is not stressed at all. In difficult situations, he can find solutions.”
“A future Polish leader”
Kiwior quickly attracted interest from abroad, notably from Borussia Dortmund, but it was Spezia Calcio who won the race, signing him for €1.5million in August 2021.
Over the past year and a half, he has developed into one of the best young defenders in the league, with Spezia also playing him as a defensive midfielder at times, although that role doesn’t come naturally to Kiwior.
His debut for Poland followed in June 2022 against the Netherlands in the UEFA Nations League, and he immediately became a starter.
In December, he was part of Poland’s starting line-up at the World Cup, making four appearances as the country reached the knockout stages for the first time since 1986.
“Kiwior is seen as the main hope, one of the most talented players and probably the key defender for the national team in the future,” said Mateusz Janiak, Polish football journalist at Weszlo.com.
“In the senior national team, he formed a centre-back partnership with the experienced Kamil Glik and you could say that Kiwior grew alongside Glik.
“Glik can’t build attacks so he gave young Kiwior all the balls and because of that he has to take responsibility. Kiwior has to carry him into midfield or attack. Progressive passing or running – It was Kiwior’s job. Not an easy one. It helped him.
“He’s really good at carrying the ball up the pitch, makes progressive passes and runs. He’s left-footed, that’s another advantage. If you ask about weaknesses, probably some actions in defense, sometimes he still makes bad decisions.”
Whatever happens in his next chapter, Kiwior’s rise to the top has been far from straightforward.