FourFourTwo’s Best 100 Football Players in the World 2015 No.4: Robert Lewandowski
Robert Lewandowski strikes a pose for the FourFourTwo cameras at Bayern Munich’s Saebener Strasse training ground. We’ve got the Poland striker doing all sorts – shouting at the camera, pretending to use a fire extinguisher, trying to raise an eyebrow (which he manages quite comfortably) – all for the cover of our November issue, for which he’s the star.
There is one problem however: we’re shooting in the club’s underground car park, where other players and coaches are intermittently parking up, eyeing with curiosity, thinking about dropping some cultured European banter in Lewandowski’s direction, before going up to train with the Bundesliga leaders.
Pep Guardiola, Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm drive by without incident and distraction. The Pole keeps his mind on the job. It’s only when Thomas Muller starts imitating Lewandowksi’s finger-in-the-air pose with full gurn, honking his horn, we’re worried our cover star might lose focus. Thankfully, he doesn’t bat an eyelid: it appears that the Bayern No.9 strikes a pose with the same unerring efficiency as he strikes a ball.
Confidence on and off the pitch
Speak to anyone who knows Robert Lewandowski and they’ll tell you that part of his development over the last 12 months is down to a new-found confidence and maturity on and off the pitch.
We last shot him for the cover of the magazine in March 2013 as part of our big feature on Borussia Dortmund.
Back then, he had to be convinced and cajoled into doing anything more than smile at the camera. This time he was much more comfortable. Point, wink, roar, flex: no problem. He was a natural.
But then of course, goals will do that for a striker. In the period we were negotiating with Bayern Munich to speak to their star forward – roughly 20 days – he scored 15 goals. In just under three weeks.
This included five-goals in nine minutes as a substitute against Wolfsburg and three goals for Poland against Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, guaranteeing the White Eagles’ qualification for Euro 2016.
All in, Lewandowski has scored 26 goals in 25 games for club and country so far this season. More than Ronaldo, Neymar, Suarez and anyone else in the top 100. He managed 31 goals during the whole of last season. This is why he’s up 17 places from last year’s Best 100 Players in the World and perhaps, most crucially, ahead of Luis Suarez in the shootout to be the FFT100’s best striker.
Proving the perfectionist wrong
Perhaps Lewandowski’s biggest achievement over the last year has been to convince Guardiola that he might be wrong. It was, after all, Pep who made the concept of the ‘false nine’ a thing in football. Yet having made the switch from Catalonia to Bavaria, the Bayern boss now finds himself in a position where Lewandowski – about as classic a No.9 as you could find – is arguably his most important player.
As was noted in our November cover feature, this change in style represents a move away from the Barca-influenced possession obsession to a more direct approach closer to the traditional Bayern style.
It's a shift borne out by the stats (up to the end of November): one goal in every 16 scored in the Champions League by Guardiola’s Barcelona came via the aerial route.
At Bayern, one goal in five is headed in. This was Pep’s way of saying he got it wrong; tacit admission that there is another way, not something the ultimate tactical puritan does very often. It’s a shift that might not have happened without Lewandowski.
The key now is to transfer this form into the second half of the season, especially when and if they come up against Barcelona in the Champions League. Of the top five in this list, Lewandowski is the only player not to win the European Cup.
If he’s to remain in this elevated company, success in Europe is key. The Bayern forward does start with a natural disadvantage to Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and Suarez though – he needs others to create for him. So as is the case with every No.9, his destiny isn’t entirely in his own hands.
Lewandowski will be hoping that Douglas Costa and Arjen Robben stay fit for the Champions League knockout rounds. Neither Robben or Bayern’s other flying winger, Franck Ribery, were fit for last season’s semi-final defeat to Luis Enrique’s side at Camp Nou, nullifying Bayern’s attacking threat and leaving Lewandowski isolated in attack. But if they stay fit, you imagine Lewandowski will be firing.
Because while he doesn’t have the flair of Neymar, the raw ability of Suarez or the magic of Messi (but then who does?) he does offer something unique. And that something was best summed up by Wolfsburg manager Dieter Hecking after suffering that quintet of goals in nine minutes from the substitute in September. "What can I say? A world-class striker shot five times on goal and could have scored seven".