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What does Robert Lewandowski do next?
The market is on for one of Europe's best strikers
If you’re looking for consistent impact over the last decade, there’s a real case that Robert Lewandowski has been the third-best player in the world.
The man just never has a down year. His worst season in terms of goalscoring was 2014/15 – his first in a Bayern shirt – when he scored just 17 times in the Bundesliga. (Bear in mind the German top-flight plays four fewer games than the other major European leagues.) Even the majestic Karim Benzema had the 2017/18 campaign when it just wasn’t happening for him in front of goal. Lewandowski never had an extended stretch of poor form.1
“Bundesliga tax” concerns? 86 Champions League goals in 106 appearances should be enough to prove his case. Everyone who’s anyone agrees Lewandowski is superb.
Like a lot of top players these days, Lewandowski has been letting his contract run without renewing. He has twelve months left and the reports are that he’s looking around, seemingly flirting with Barcelona. Now, maybe this is all just a play from his agent to get Bayern to pay up. Maybe Bayern won’t cough up as much as he wants, so he’d like to get that bag elsewhere. Maybe, after twelve years in the Bundesliga, he’d like to try playing in a different league and living in a new country. Maybe there’s behind the scenes drama we don’t know about. Whatever it is, he has every right to look around and see what his options are.
But what should happen? What clubs should and shouldn’t be sniffing around? How much is he worth, to Bayern or anyone else? Let’s take a closer look.
How good is he right now?
He’s fantastic. Looking at the data, it’s hard to find any signs of him slowing down at all. Take a look at his expected goals and assists per 90 each season:
Looks like a lot of being consistently great to me! Where he has dropped off a little is in receiving progressive passes. He’s receiving 33% fewer of them right now than he was two years ago. Either he’s not making as many good runs to receive the ball, or his teammates aren’t picking him out as often. Bayern are making a similar number of progressive passes and, from the outside, his importance and stature clearly hasn’t declined. This does suggest he has a bit less of a burst and can’t make as many runs as he used to, but that he’s become even better at making the most of when he does get into a good position. This is a classic experienced striker move: can’t make as many runs, but better than ever at turning those runs into good chances.
I think we can expect that arc to continue. Like most top strikers, Lewandowski surely spends all his waking hours thinking about how many goals he scores. That probably means gradually stripping away the rest of his game to focus his energy purely on putting the ball in the back of the net. That’s already been a theme over his career, as he’s become much more of a “pure” striker at Bayern compared to his time with Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. His pressing numbers have ticked down a little this year. For a very dominant team like Bayern, you’d like to see the forwards and attacking midfielders lead the team in terms of pressures per 90. Lewandowski this season is putting up a volume of pressures more in line with the team’s centre backs, which is slightly alarming. For all the good that he does, in 2022 you can’t expect Lewandowski to be a striker who leads the press.
I should at least mention the quality of the Bundesliga here. It’s possible that the Bundesliga has declined quite a bit in the last few years, and this has helped Lewandowski age gracefully. He’s been scoring just fine in the Champions League, so it doesn’t look too worrying, but it’s still something to point out.
TL;DR a lot of goals, but less and less of everything else.
So what happens next?
When players hit a point in their thirties, contract length becomes as important as the salary. They’re essentially the same thing, obviously, as another year of the contract means another year of money. This will probably be his last big payday, so he wants to make sure it’s good.
Barcelona are reportedly ready to offer him a three-year deal. That would take us up to 2025, at age 36. Presumably, Bayern are only offering him a year less than this, and that’s why he’s looking around. It’s obviously possible a club could pay a transfer fee to get him, with €40 million (£33m) being the price talked about. If not, then he will presumably want to sign a two-year deal in 2023.
We can reasonably assume he will keep stripping away his all-around game to maintain his goalscoring. That tends to be the arc everyone from Cristiano Ronaldo to Jamie Vardy follows. If you want him to keep working hard without the ball and linking up play, you’re probably asking him to make a trade-off and give up some of his goals. He knows his own body better than anyone, and if he’s doing less work off the ball, you can bet it’s about conserving his own energy for what he’s best at. If you’re asking him to sacrifice his goals for more work outside the penalty area, you may as well go and sign somebody else.
For this reason, I don’t really think Barcelona should be looking at him. Xavi has done an excellent job reinstilling the principles of positional play at the Camp Nou, but there is still a long way to go. I think Lewandowski is a better player than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in isolation, but the former Arsenal striker is currently making twice as many pressures per 90 as Bayern’s number nine. At age 32, that might not last, but the hope should be that he does enough to help the team get by while Xavi properly rebuilds the side over the next two years. Moving to Lewandowski and investing heavily would be a move away from the football Barcelona want to play, and a move back towards the reactive big-name policy of the Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu eras.
Elsewhere, it’s hard to find the right fit. Manchester City look set to buy Erling Haaland, locking down the centre forward role for many years. Liverpool don’t need a striker. Real Madrid have Karim Benzema at a similar point in his career. Chelsea and Manchester United are still dealing with their marquee strikers from last summer who haven’t lifted the club as expected. Paris Saint-Germain are his only realistic destination to get paid, but who even knows what they’re thinking right now.
He’s worth more to Bayern than anyone else, I think. They’d suffer from losing his goals more than anyone else would gain from him. As such, I think the move is probably to hang on and wait to see things play out. Lewandowski might not get the payday he wants, but we’re all hurting in this economy. Don’t take it personally, Robert.