How Robert Lewandowski became this season's deadliest striker
Over the last decade, debates have surfaced about the death of the classic striker. False nines have appeared, lone forwards are in vogue and fewer top sides rely on crosses. Such is the modern game, they say; goal scorers must also dribble, create and assist. You can't just lurk around the box.
But that is exactly what Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski is doing. Nearly three weeks ago, the Polish 27-year-old came off the bench at half-time to hammer five goals past Wolfsburg in nine minutes. He has kept going, grabbing seven more in three fixtures for his club, which has made him top scorer in the main five European leagues, with 12 goals in seven Bundesliga appearances.
This eye-catching streak has helped Bayern top the Bundesliga seven points above Borussia Dortmund. The last four matches have been wins against Wolfsburg (5-1), Mainz (3-0), Dinamo Zagreb (5-0) and former club Borussia Dortmund (5-1), during which Lewandowski has scored 12 goals in 315 minutes. That is equal to a goal every 26th minute -- and he doesn't even take penalties.
This might well make Lewandowski the world's finest out-and-out striker right now. But how has he managed to reach such staggering numbers?
Taking advantage of the service
Lewandowski has almost every quality sought in a classic No. 9: height, strength, balance, pace, intelligent movement and accuracy with both feet. But a soloist he is not. Six Bayern players surpass his 1.3 dribbles per league game this season. Over the aforementioned four games, he has tried six take-ons and completed two. Not only is that a modest success rate, but those he pulled off were against goalkeepers vs. Mainz and Dortmund. The failed attempts all came against Dinamo in the Champions League, with three taking place in good positions.
This suggests that Lewandowski needs good service. Considering his form, one might assume that Bayern have become better and that he is merely benefiting from receiving clear-cut chances on a silver platter. Examining the four fixtures, Bayern have certainly played well. Eighteen goals, an average of 19.25 shots per game and a possession average of 67.5 percent. You'd expect a lone striker to do all right.
But on closer inspection, these statistics hardly deviate from Bayern's norm. In the Bundesliga this season, Pep Guardiola's side have averaged 19.1 shots per game; the possession figure is 66.8 percent. Lewandowski's form cannot be said to be proportional to Bayern's dominance, because if it were, he'd be scoring like this all the time.
Neither do his goals appear attributable to any one tactic. True to form, Guardiola has switched between several systems in the last four matches, and while Lewandowski has always been used as a lone striker, there have been back-threes, midfield diamonds and everything in between. The patterns of play vary. Bayern have so many ways to attack.
Becoming a fearsome finisher
What about his chemistry with other players? Again, it has been difficult to spot a recurring partnership. Whereas Cristiano Ronaldo combines well with Karim Benzema, and where Lionel Messi has Luis Suarez and Neymar, Lewandowski connects with different players. In the last four matches, only once has the Pole received more than six passes from the same player over 90 minutes -- Thiago giving him nine against Dinamo.
In fact, Lewandowski doesn't get that many passes at all. At least not in dangerous positions. Against Mainz and Dortmund he received just six passes inside the penalty area (another was right on the edge.) But here's the thing: four were turned into goals.
The explanation appears to be sheer efficiency. Guardiola has not devised a magic formula in which his striker gets five tap-ins per game. Rather, Lewandowski's movement and finishing have been close to impeccable. Considering that he has attempted 25 shots over his four games, we're talking about a conversion rate close to 50 percent. This is not about chances as such, but any shot or header he might have tried. Even those that were blocked.
Watching the goals, you are treated to a master class in finishing. On eight occasions, Lewandowski has needed just one touch. There are tap-ins, a 20-yard strike, an expert half-volley, an acrobatic full volley, a header, low finishes from crosses, two where he fools the offside trap, one corner, one lob. The variety is stunning. As far as the ideal of a "complete striker" is concerned, Lewandowski seems to be about as close as they come.
One trend can be found in his positioning. All 12 goals have come from central areas, with just one produced from outside the box and one inside 6 yards. As such, 10 have taken place near the penalty spot. Several examples arose against Wolfsburg and Dinamo.
His focus on goals, and nothing else
Does Lewandowski do anything else? Not in terms of creating chances. This season he has made 19.4 passes per league game, his lowest figure since his debut season with Dortmund in 2010-11, and a mile away from Bayern's top passer David Alaba (88.9). No player at Bayern has made fewer passes than him this season. Even goalkeeper Manuel Neuer averages 33.5.
Forget about key passes too: Lewandowski has recorded just 0.7 per Bundesliga game this season and, as the diagrams show, splitting defences is not his thing. His previous assist came in the 5-0 win over Hamburg on Aug. 14. Since that game, Bayern have scored 28 times in the fixtures he has featured in.
But perhaps that is a part of the classic goal scorer's charm. For Guardiola, the contrast is great between the forward roles handed to Lewandowski at Bayern and Messi at his former club Barcelona. Guardiola's instructions to Lewandowski will undoubtedly still be complex, yet ostensibly they might as well have the simplicity of a Sunday league shout: just stick the ball in the net.
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