The goal that broke the record wasn’t necessarily a classic, but it was symbolic of Robert Lewandowski’s form this season. With Bayern Munich on the counter, he received the ball on top of Union Berlin’s penalty area as two centerbacks quickly closed him down. Lewandowski technically lost possession as he looked to play a 1-2, but his intercepted pass ricocheted back to him perfectly in stride as he dribbled past the centerbacks and wrong-footed the keeper. The sequence displayed the requisite directness and intent in open space, along with a quick-thinking ruthlessness. With the goal, Lewandowski set a new Bundesliga record by scoring in nine straight league matches to open the season.
Lewandowski currently leads the top five European leagues in goalscoring with 20 goals in 14 competitive matches. We’ve grown accustomed to Lewandowski’s goal-scoring streaks: he has the record for the most goals in the Bundesliga by a non-German player. He’s scored the fastest hat-trick (3 minutes and 52 seconds), as well as being the fastest to scoring both four and five goals in a match (5 minutes and 42 seconds, and 8 minutes and 59 seconds respectively). He has the most goals in both Euro and World Cup qualifying campaigns, along with the most hat-tricks during World Cup qualifications. The only record that will seemingly elude him is Gerd Muller’s all-time Bundesliga goalscoring record (Muller has 365, Lewandowski is at 216).
Despite the numbers, it still feels as if Lewandowski is overlooked on the European football consciousness. That oversight is exemplified by his fraught relationship with the Ballon d’Or. He finished 16th in voting last season despite scoring 42 goals in all competitions, calling the ceremony a “cabaret.”
“If you play for Bayern Munich and are playing Champions League semifinals and scoring a lot of goals in the Bundesliga and you’re second top scorer in the Champions League...I don’t know what place I was but it was a little bit funny,” remarked Lewandowski after his 16th place finish.
There’s a constant revolving door for the third best player in the world after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Only those two players have scored more goals than Lewandowski since 2011, who is averaging 34 goals per season. We may have grown bored, or used to his inevitable dominance. Lewandowski doesn’t have a signature style of goal or dribble, he just checks off every section of a world class striker - from goals, movement, hold-up play, aerial ability, to fitness. He can score from every angle, using every part of his body. That consistency gives off the sense that there is no imagination-capturing magic to his game, no fantasy fit for a Ballon d’Or.
But at one point, Lewandowski did have further ambitions, both of a sense of the limitations at Bayern, and the riches at Real Madrid. He was linked with a move to Spain two seasons ago, lamenting Bayern’s lack of big name moves in the transfer market. From that perspective, one can view European clubs not only as teams but as keys to unlock the upper echelon of awards. Moving to Real Madrid would have given him access to the elite in ways that Bayern could not. As such, Lewandowski’s role in the contemporary footballing world is shaped by structures outside of his control.
Now, there is a sense of calmness and acceptance of his positioning within the ecosystem that has unleashed Lewandowski. At age 31, there are no longer moves to Manchester United or Real Madrid in the rumor mill, nor the drive for individual accomplishment. In lieu of a Ballon d’Or, he may have to settle with just becoming one of the most prolific strikers in Bundesliga and European history.
At the end of last season, it looked as if Luka Jovic would take over the role as the most efficient European striker. Thus far, Jovic has just one goal in nine matches backing up Karim Benzema at Real Madrid.
It was never going to be that easy for Jovic, or any other young player transitioning into the next great European striker. There exists a learning curve to the striker craft, with late bloomers hitting their peak in their late 20’s as opposed to phenoms as other positions. There are the subtle tricks mastered by experience and time, those of positioning, efficiency in moving, and a mind working a half step faster than opponents in recognizing openings. Perhaps Lewandowski isn’t the best example of a late-bloomer as he’s always scored goals, but there are definite levels. He reached his first 20 goal season in 2011 with Dortmund at age 23, but then began to score 30 goals starting from the 2015 season as he entered his late 20’s. It would be foolish to dismiss the 21-year-old Jovic already. But in terms of age range, Lewandowski’s heir may be hiding in plain sight.
Lewandowski now takes on the role as clarity provider and steer of the Bayern ship after the club sacked Niko Kovac. We expect the club to continue winning matches even without a manager. But like Lewandowski, perhaps that sort of consistency ruins the mystique of Bayern for other managers. Ralf Rangnick, Erik ten Hag, and Thomas Tuchel have all reportedly turned down the open job. Similar to Juventus’ domination of Serie A, there is a new class of European teams caught in the middle between dominating their domestic league while not quite breaking into the modern day Champions League elite. Winning isn’t only expected but almost guaranteed, almost taking out the role of the manager.
I wrote about Lewandowski in comparison to Neymar in 2015, with Neymar representing the creative x-factor of the South American striker and Lewandowski the representative for European efficiency. I concluded then that Lewandowski was on the verge of his prime with the spacing and service provided under Pep Guardiola. Kovac observed that Lewandowski was having the best season of his career this year. Lewandowski is again on the 30-player shortlist for the Ballon d’Or set to be announced in December. He should finish higher than 16th this time. But in this case, what he lacks in individual trophies will be made up in history by sheer records, goals, and numbers.