Year Zero: The making of Robert Lewandowski (Lech Poznan, 2009/10)

Robert Lewandowski
(Image credit: PA Images)

You need a striker and can pick only one of Robert Lewandowski or Mikel Arruabarrena.

It seems like a simple question. We’re talking 550 career goals for an active player, versus the 108 of someone who retired in 2019. One has won the Bundesliga nine times; the other has a sole Spanish second division in his trophy cabinet. 

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Lewandowski and Arruabarrena are simply not comparable; in Poland though they forever will be, thanks to former Legia Warsaw sporting director Mirosław Trzeciak.

After finishing some distance behind Wisła Kraków in the 2007/08 Ekstraklasa, Trzeciak thought Arruabarrena was the man to help Legia close the gap. Regarding Lewandowski, he famously said: “We don’t need Lewandowski, we have Arruabarrena!”

Trzeciak has since claimed Legia were interested, but Lewandowski’s agent asked for an extortionate sell on clause.

Regardless of the real story, back then the striker was a skinny 19-year-old who had been released by Legia’s reserve team just two years before. Despite ending the previous season as second division top scorer at Znicz Pruszków, Lewandowski was not seen as anything special.

Robert Lewandowski

(Image credit: PA Images)

“It wasn't like when we saw Lewandowski we immediately said, ‘sure, this guy will score goals in the best clubs in Europe,’” says sports journalist Damian Smyk.

“He was a young talent that needed to get some experience at the top level of Polish football,” adds Lech Poznań fan Piotrek Przyborowski.

As if to match these underwhelming expectations, upon joining Lech Lewandowski’s first move was to upgrade his Fiat Bravo to a Ford Focus.

On the pitch Lewandowski announced himself with a backheel against GKS Bełchatów on the opening day, which would win goal of the season. Shortly after he was handed his first international cap, coming off the bench in September 2008 to score against San Marino.

However, Lech coach Franciszek Smuda often used him on the wing, rather than as a number nine. He doubted Lewandowski’s physicality, having previously described the striker as ‘a tree’.

That was nothing compared to what Lewandowski had already faced. He had started his career in Poland’s fourth division and was struck by tragedy when his father Krzysztof died in 2005. He was used to overcoming obstacles.

“All the players say that Lewandowski was already very, very hardworking then, with extra gym after training,” Smyk says. “He wasn't part of the ‘party group’, he preferred to stay at home with (his now wife) Anna.”

“He was different, he changed Lech,” remembers journalist and Lech fan Radosław Nawrot. “In those years Lech was a crazy team, with an extremely offensive style. After the arrival of Lewandowski, the team started to play more effectively with more sense.”

The results would soon come. Lech might have thrown away a title lead to finish third in the Ekstraklasa, but managed to win the Polish Cup after defeating Ruch Chorzów 1-0 in the final.

Despite being so young, Lewandowski led by example. At the end of his first season in Poznań he had scored twenty goals, finishing as his team’s top scorer for the third consecutive season.

Just six months on, the Arruabarrena debate looked cut and dried. The Spaniard only played six times for Legia, failing to score before having his contract cancelled after one season. With the greatest of respect though, Lewandowski was gunning far higher.

His big game mentality was clear after he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over league leaders Wisła in October 2009, in what would prove a crucial win.

At the halfway point of the 2009/10 season Lewandowski had registered nine goals, as Lech sat eight points behind Wisła and Legia. Seemingly out of the title race, the Poznań side continued to chase.

Lewandowski picked up where he left off after the winter break, scoring a brace at Polonia Warsaw, before netting against Cracovia and Jagiellonia Białystok in March.

April saw Lewandowski go without a goal in four games, but he was aided by future Wolves winger Sławomir Peszko and Tomasz Mikołajczak. Lech took ten points from 12, including a crucial 1-0 win against Legia.

Into the final stretch Lewandowski took over. Five goals in the final four games, including a brace at Śląsk Wrocław, sealed Lech’s first league title in 17 years.

“Without him there would be no championship for Lech in 2010,” reflects Smyk.

Lewandowski’s most influential match came at Ruch in the penultimate game of the season, which saw two huge twists in added time.

First Lewandowski, who had already scored, found Sergey Krivets to secure a 2-1 win. As Lech’s players celebrated, Wisła defender Mariusz Jop put into his own net to gift Cracovia a point in the Kraków derby.

Lech crept ahead, finishing the job on the final day with a 2-0 win over Zagłębie Lubin. Lewandowski scored the second to ensure the triumph, underlining how important he was to the team.

Robert Lewandowski

(Image credit: PA Images)

That summer Lewandowski turned down a lucrative approach from Shakhtar Donetsk to join Borussia Dortmund. He was also in talks with Blackburn Rovers, only to be famously denied a move to Lancashire after the Icelandic ash cloud prevented him flying to England.

Regardless of the destination, Lech fans had no hard feelings towards their talisman’s decision. “We totally understood, BVB was for him another big step and a huge chance,” says Przyborowski.

Just as when he joined Lech, some people cast doubt on whether Lewandowski would cope in the Bundesliga. One media outlet ran a story claiming he would spend a few years as a reserve before returning to Poland on a free.

However, there wasn’t a doubt in Lewandowski’s mind. He was going to Germany to succeed.

“Ivan Djurdjević, who played with Lewandowski in Lech, told me when he left he gave him a Polish-German dictionary,” says Smyk. “(Lewandowski) took it very nicely and said, ‘Don't worry, I won't be back soon.'"

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