In 16 Bundesliga games this season, Bayern Munich have won 14 and drawn 2, scoring 42 goals and conceding just 8. So what do they do? They sign the star striker from their major title rivals in recent years. Robert Lewandowski’s long-anticipated switch to Bayern from Borussia Dortmund was finally confirmed last weekend (opens in new tab) – he’ll move to Bavaria in the summer.
On paper, Lewandowski is being signed on a ‘free’ transfer, yet some have estimated the total cost of the deal – wages, sign-on fees and agent fees – at around €70m. This is not Bayern simply hoovering up a major rival’s talent for the sake of it; they’ve made a deliberate, extremely expensive move for a player they hope will complete their side.
Tactically, this is a significant transfer. At Barcelona, Pep Guardiola shunned traditional strikers. He tried to sell Samuel Eto’o as soon as he took charge, eventually played him on the right towards the end of Barça’s treble-winning season, and then allowed him to leave.
Although he bought Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a replacement, the two never got on, and Guardiola realised Leo Messi could only reach his full potential when played permanently in the centre. A proper replacement for Ibrahimovic was never signed, and Messi became a permanent false nine.
The dependable workhorse...
Many expected Guardiola to continue with that philosophy at Bayern. The signing of Mario Gotze, another player poached from Dortmund and a forward frequently compared to Messi, suggested Guardiola wanted to play with another false nine.
However, Gotze has only been fielded up front once in the league this season and Guardiola’s first-choice centre-forward has instead been Mario Mandzukic, who excelled in Bayern’s European Cup victory last season. Guardiola has also used Thomas Muller up front on a couple of occasions, though he’s generally played deeper, and given one outing to Claudio Pizarro, who is unlikely to be at Bayern by the time Lewandowski makes his debut.
Mandzukic has started 12 times, but it’s interesting that he’s failed to score more than once in any of these games – his only brace came as a substitute, against Hertha Berlin. Although he plays a decent all-round role, his goalscoring record of 35 in 65 isn’t spectacular for a side as dominant as Bayern, with all their creative outlets.
Mandzukic was magnificent last season, especially in the Champions League, but not necessarily for his goalscoring feats. Against Arsenal and Juventus, two good possession sides, his work rate high up the pitch was extraordinary – he pressed the opposition defences then dropped back to win the ball in midfield, too. He was an incredible physical presence, perhaps – strangely – best summed up by how many fouls he was involved in against Juventus.
As a pure striker, Mandzukic’s weakness is that he rarely creates opportunities himself – he relies on others to provide him good service. Although he’s scored a few this season, he’s been relatively anonymous when failing to find the net – his link-up play hasn’t been great, and it’s not unusual for him to go the whole game without troubling the goalkeeper, as shown by his performances against Augsburg and Manchester City.
For Guardiola, accustomed to playing with Messi who averages around six shots per game, that must feel distinctly underwhelming.
...and the attempted "nine and a half"
It was particularly damning for Mandzukic how much Bayern improved in the 3-0 victory over Dortmund in after the Croatian was replaced by Gotze. In fairness, the two players were given completely different tasks – Bayern started off by hitting the ball long to bypass Dortmund’s press, which meant Mandzukic was perfect for challenging in the air and bringing down long balls.
However, Gotze’s impact was immediate – his pass completion rate underlines how much he improved Bayern’s build-up play, and he scored the crucial opener with his only chance of the game.
However, the fact Gotze has only started as the main striker once in the Bundesliga suggests Guardiola isn’t convinced about using the diminutive dribbler as a false nine.
That was in a comfortable 2-0 home win over bottom-placed Eintracht Braunschweig, so was more of an experiment than a crafty tactical surprise. Gotze only lasted an hour up front before Mandzukic replaced Muller, with Gotze dropping deeper. His passing demonstrates he was playing as a false nine, although he often lost the ball on the edge of the penalty box, and is currently unable to play Messi’s dual role as both a creative No.10 and a goalscoring No.9 simultaneously.
So what will Lewandowski offer that Gotze and Mandzukic don’t? Well, put simply, he’s somewhere in between the two. He combines a penalty box presence with more intelligent link-up play.
Although he initially appears a straightforward No.9, Lewandowski has increasingly developed his game to become a true all-round centre-forward, which was particularly obvious in last season’s run to the Champions League final.
For example, in the quarter-final against Malaga, Lewandowski’s movement towards the ball was brilliant. He offered an extra passing option at the top of midfield, and created four chances as Dortmund’s pacy attacking midfielders sprinted past him. The fact one of those midfielders was Gotze is particularly ominous for the rest of the Bundesliga.
Statistically, Lewandowski has completely outperformed Mandzukic this season. He has nearly double the number of shots as Mandzukic, and has scored more goals. More intriguing are his passing statistics: he has a higher pass completion rate, plays more passes, creates more chances, and has recorded four assists to Mandzukic’s none, despite playing in an inferior side.
Lewandowski will broadly be playing Mandzukic’s role – but in a way that suits a Guardiola side better. If Gotze is a false nine and Mandzukic is an old-fashioned No.9, Lewandowski is somewhere in between – he’s the complete striker, and Bayern will be even more dominant after his arrival.
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