Given Pep Guardiola’s reputation as modern football management’s great progressor, the extraordinary form of Robert Lewandowski offers at least a nod in the direction of irony. Cast aside your false nines! Pooh-pooh your team of midfielders! Call the catwalks of Milan – the old-fashioned No. 9 is back in fashion.
Bayern Munich’s current dominance is all-encompassing. So far this season in the Bundesliga and Champions League they are scoring at a rate of a goal every 27 minutes. They’re conceding one goal for almost three matches played. If the league title was not already secured in July, then it is over now. Nine games played, nine wins. Every other club sees second as a success story, staring up at the Allianz Arena through their glass ceiling.
It is Lewandowski, archetypal front man of football’s last mini-generation, who is taking Bayern Munich to greater heights this season. He has scored 16 times in 846 minutes for his club, and six more for Poland to equal the European Championship qualifying record. Yes, David Healy’s record.
Lewandowski is an awkward leading actor. There is something extraordinarily ordinary about him, an image that sits somewhere between pensions advisor and semi-successful recruitment consultant. European football’s top scorer has no air of mystique, nor the physical presence of many modern stars. Despite only being six feet tall, the Pole looks gangly thanks to his wiry physique. Is this the first recorded case of geographical determinism?
There is also no one aspect of Lewandowski’s game that sets him apart from the rest. His potential has been realised and maximised not through magic formula or physical advantage, but far more recognisable characteristics like hard work. This is just a centre-forward doing what a centre-forward should do, but doing it better than any other in the world.
Lewandowski’s overwhelming normality is reflected in his reputation. This is a striker who has moved for less than €5 million in his career, signed on a free transfer by Bayern at least as much to weaken a rival as strengthen themselves. Even in February, when rumours of Manchester United interest surfaced, £30m was the maximum price mentioned. Until the last fortnight, this was not a name that left a trail of stardust in its wake.
Focusing on anything other than Lewandowski’s recent goal record may be ignoring the large elephant in a very small dressing-room, but it is a different attribute entirely that most at Bayern Munich prefer to dwell upon.
“He’s a model professional,” says CEO Karl-Heinz Rumenigge. “He gets through a great deal of work for the team and he uses his physique to optimal effect, even though he’s not actually that big.” Sporting director Matthias Sammer makes the same point: “He thoroughly deserved those goals – he fought hard in training and worked hard.”
Even Javi Martinez, waxing lyrical on Lewandowski’s recent goal avalanche, took care to praise the other side to his game. “Lewandowski is the best striker in the world right now,” the Spain international said. “He does not only score a lot of goals, but always helps the team defensively as well.”
Brought up as a devout Catholic, Lewandowski’s youth coaches were all impressed by his focus and commitment. If the bountiful fruit is now in season, the seeds were sown in the preparation and work ethic. It’s something the striker puts down to his difficult upbringing: “My father died when I was 16,” he told BILD. “His death was the toughest time for me. Suddenly, I was the man of the house and had to be a grown-up. The memory of my father still drives me on.”
If there was an anecdote to epitomise this personality trait, it came after the Champions League semi-final in 2013. Having scored all four goals as Borussia Dortmund eliminated Real Madrid, Lewandowski was asked about his performance. “The final is all that counts,” was his simple message. The Pole is a team player in every sense.
Lewandowski’s astonishing recent goalscoring run has coincided with injuries to Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, but this is no accident. Despite being picked as nominal wingers, Robben and Ribery much prefer to cut inside and shoot than head to the byline and cross. Robben averaged 4.7 shots per 90 minutes last season (more than any other Bundesliga player); Lewandowski just 3.8.
Without Bayern’s armed ‘Robbery’, Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa have stepped into the breach. Having two typical wingers has increased the number of crosses into the box and thus the opportunities. From 3.8 shots per game last season to 5.1 per game this.
“With Douglas Costa and Coman on the wings, there are lots of crosses and therefore lots of chances,” Lewandowski told ESPN. “It also helps that Thomas Müller is playing very closely to me, like a second striker. It’s hard to keep the ball when you’re up against four defenders and two holding midfielders by yourself. It’s easier with somebody next to you, somebody you can combine with.”
Yet this is no new phenomenon. Since the beginning of the 2011/12 season, only Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have scored more goals in Europe’s top five leagues than Lewandowski, and for three of those seasons he wasn’t even playing for the league’s strongest team. Under the radar, again.
Situated next to that high-profile podium of football glamour, just to the left of centre, stands an unassuming forward. Looks should not be deceiving. There may be no hint of superstardom, but Robert Lewandowski is European football’s other outstanding forward. The ‘other’ in that sentence is becoming increasingly defunct.