FEATURE | How Robert Lewandowski made the impossible possible at Bayern Munich

When Robert Lewandowski first joined Borussia Dortmund from Lech Poznań back in 2010, he could hardly have imagined how his foray into German football would turn out. The very fact that he landed in German football was itself an extraordinary stroke of luck – something that almost didn’t happen. Remarkably, the Polish striker was set to join English side Blackburn Rovers and was about to fly to England to finalise the deal. Yet the volcanic ash clouds caused by the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull suspended all flights in and out of the UK, meaning that Lewandowski was left stranded in Poland, unable to complete the deal. In addition to Blackburn’s financial worries, the transfer was put on hold. It would famously never be completed. Then came the Polish striker’s reported transfer to Genoa, with terms having once more been agreed before club president Enrico Preziosi decided to cancel the transfer at the last minute. Instead, it was to be Borussia Dortmund and the Bundesliga. The rest is history, they say.

Having been signed off the back of a successful Ekstraklasa season, with the Polish striker winning the Golden Boot by netting 18 times, Borussia Dortmund had unearthed a gem. He made an instant impression scoring his first Bundesliga goal in Dortmund’s 3-1 win in the Revierderby. The goals kept flowing for the Pole, who in the next few weeks scored twice against Sandhausen in the DFB Pokal, before racking up his first Bundesliga hat-trick in the club’s 4-0 demolition of Augsburg. Just two weeks later, he scored his first Champions League goal. The striker finished the domestic campaign with 22 goals, and as the third-top scorer in the league. In his final game of his inaugural Dortmund season, Lewandowski scored a hat-trick in the DFB Pokal Final, in a 5-2 win over Bayern Munich, helping Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund secure the club’s first ever domestic double.

Opposition teams simply could not stop the bloodletting, with Lewandowski relentlessly continuing where he had left off. Though despite his fine Bundesliga form, scoring 24 times in just 31 appearances, it was during the 2012/13 season that he really announced himself on the international stage. After scoring six goals on Dortmund’s way to the Champions League final four, Lewandowski became the first player to score four goals in a Champions League semi-final, achieving the feat against Spanish giants Real Madrid – something Barcelona fans will be eager to see repeated. Despite losing that season’s final to Bayern Munich, Lewandowski had now established himself as one of Europe’s most lethal finishers. The Polish striker amassed his 100th Dortmund goal in just his 182nd appearance for the club, before winning his first Bundesliga Golden Boot at the end of the 2013/14 season having found the net 20 times. Lewandowski would then of course join arch-rivals Bayern Munich later that summer in a controversial move.

Though the striker needed no time at all settling into his new club. Whilst Lewandowski enjoyed a fine debut season in Bavaria, scoring 17 times in 31 Bundesliga appearances, it was the season after where he really entered his peak, taking his game to another level – a level rivalled by so few throughout history. During the 2015/16 season, Lewandowski set a Bundesliga record, scoring a perplexing five goals in 8 minutes and 59 seconds. In the process, he recorded the fastest ever Bundesliga hat-trick (three goals in four minutes). Even more remarkably, Lewandowski entered the fray in that game as a substitute, confirming his place in history as the scorer of the most goals by a substitute in a single game. His five goals in nine minutes were the fastest ever recorded in any major European football league.

Title after title, golden boot after golden boot, Lewandowski hit 30 goals in consecutive Bundesliga seasons, becoming the first foreign player to hit the 30-goal mark and the first to do it since Dieter Müller for FC Köln in the 1976/77 season. During a memorable 2018/19 season, he became the third-fastest player to score 50 Champions League goals (in just 77 matches), exceeded Claudio Pizarro’s record of 195 goals to become the Bundesliga’s highest scoring foreign player, as well as surpassing Gerd Müller’s record of five goals to become the all-time top scorer in DFB Pokal finals. Lewandowski reached the 40-goal landmark in all competitions for the fourth consecutive season, as Bayern won the domestic double.

Surely things couldn’t get better than this, could they? Well, this is Robert Lewandowski. With no extra gears seemingly existing, the Bayern Munich striker seemed to consistently find them. At the beginning of the 2019/20 season, Lewandowski became the first player in Bundesliga history to achieve double figures for goals after just six rounds. Just a few rounds later, he then became the first player to score in each of the opening nine, ten and eleven Bundesliga matches of a season. Weeks later, in a 6-0 dismantling of Red Star Belgrade in Europe, Lewandowski set a new record for the fastest time to score four goals in a Champions League match, whilst becoming only the second player ever to score four goals in multiple matches of Europe’s elite club competition.

That same season, as Bayern Munich won it all, he equalled Cristiano Ronaldo’s record of scoring nine away goals in a Champions League season, as well as matching the 1972 achievement of the great Johan Cruyff of winning the European treble whilst simultaneously being the top scorer in all three competitions. Lewandowski was subsequently awarded with the prize for Best FIFA Men’s Player and UEFA Men’s Player of the Year. The records continued to tumble, with the Pole becoming the third player in Bundesliga history to pass the 250-goal mark, as well as breaking Gerd Müller’s record of 40 goals in a Bundesliga season, notching up a staggeringly impressive total of 41 in just 29 Bundesliga games. In what has turned out to be his final season in Bavaria, he managed to keep up his record of scoring more than a goal a game, tallying 35 goals in just 34. The Ballon d’Or Striker of the Year award came his way, but it’s impossible to ignore the inauspicious fact that it should have been the Ballon d’Or itself.

And so, Lewandowski departs perhaps as the number one centre-forward on the planet, having well and truly launched himself into the conversation of all-time greats. Whilst many question why he would actively seek a move to Barcelona – a club seemingly so mired in disarray; the reality is that sometimes you just need to move on. Careers are ultimately short, with Barcelona representing a fantastic opportunity to play for one of the other great clubs of the world, testing oneself in a new league, as well as simply experiencing a different way of life.

Having said that, it remains to be seen whether or not this is actually a sensible acquisition from Barcelona’s point of view. Lewandowski will be 34-years-old when the season starts, and splashing €50 million on a player who they are likely only going to get a few seasons out of, doesn’t reveal itself as entirely responsible for a club so deeply enmeshed in financial trouble. This is a club that is in urgent need of a rebuild. Spending lavishly on the world’s top names seemingly does not fit that bill.

Though what a privilege it has been to watch such an extraordinary player week in week out. Records have persistently been shattered, and it may well be a long period of time before we ever see the like again. So often Lewandowski made the impossible possible, with his quiet charisma on the field expressed with such fluency. Lewandowski is someone who finishes chances with a sense of therapeutically aesthetic ease, giving us a sense of pleasure that goes beyond the stats. You feel safe with a player like Lewandowski. You just don’t feel like he will ever miss. Of course, he will, but it’s the players that make you feel something that leave the greatest legacy.

Twelve years on from his Bundesliga bow, he departs a legend whose period in Germany will never be forgotten. 10 Bundesliga titles, 4 DFB Pokals, 6 DFL Supercups, a Champions League, a UEFA Super Cup, and a FIFA Club World Cup, Robert Lewandowski has delivered one of the all-time great Bundesliga careers. We have witnessed something truly special, and for that we must be thankful. Only when it’s gone, will we realise just how extraordinary it was.

James Westmacott

 

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