Lewandowski’s rekindled love of the game pays off for Barca

During his years in LaLiga, I don’t believe there has been anyone as forensically critical of Robert Lewandowski‘s attitude and performance than me, and so it’s with great pleasure that I admit it’s time to redress the balance. The real Robert Lewandowski has eventually stood up again. He’s realised that the true route to glory is to put the team above himself, and the product of this metamorphosis is pretty enjoyable.

For those new to the argument, which I feel it’s worth underlining has been proven wholly accurate, here’s a summary of my constructive criticism:

There was never any hiding from the fact that the Poland striker arrived aged 33 and, as such, couldn’t be quite the same athlete who’d monstered defences in Germany and Europe for the previous eight years. When he began to lose form and motivation in the weeks following the 2022 World Cup, the version of Lewandowski he offered up was unacceptable. He played greedily, dropped his work rate, consistently failed to control good passes, and while it’s completely inarguable that the 13 goals he scored in his first 12 La Liga matches were a gigantic step towards Barcelona winning the title, his four in the next fourteen were a warning of his malaise.

It was never an argument based solely on his stats, though; it was about his mentality, attitude, team play, work rate, reliability and the most basic ability to receive and hold the ball for the benefit of his team.

During the second half of last season, Lewandowski offered an increasingly pale version of himself, to the point that his inability to sprint beyond a high defensive line and his very evident drop in standards meant that Barça often actually played better, more fluid football when he wasn’t in the XI.

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In due course Barcelona’s highest salary earner admitted that there was a problem.

“In 2023, there were times when I felt weak, not only mentally… that led to feeling physically weaker,” Lewandowski said in an interview with Polish football programme Foot Truck. “In that period, all the bad things came together at the same time — everything seemed to accumulate at once.

“My spark went out. I’m not avoiding saying that I made some errors; I fell into a negative dynamic and it took a lot of time to get out of it, to become normal again. In football, working through something like this isn’t a process of one or two weeks.”

On which basis, sympathies to Lewandowski. While it was underwhelming and confusing to watch him playing with such a lack of basic criteria, the afflictions he describes are truly corrosive to the human spirit, and it’s only lately that football is beginning to take the mental wellbeing of its participants anything like seriously. It’s good to see and hear him well again.

And it’s worth emphasising, once more, that the evidence of his return to normal service isn’t about stats alone.

Lewandowski arrived in Barcelona badly stung by the way in which the Ballon d’Or had escaped him in recent seasons. Part of his strategy was to join a great, but ailing, club, unite with a returning, alluring club-legend in manager Xavi Hernandez, and, hopefully, lead the Blaugrana to Champions League glory, thereby vastly increasing his Ballon d’Or chances. Not the daftest strategy you’ve ever heard, admittedly, but torpedoed by the fact that Barcelona were embarrassed in Europe last season: dumped out of the Champions League in the group stage and then immediately ushered out of the Europa League by a very moderate Manchester United who’d later be beaten by relegation-threatened Sevilla.

All of this badly affected Lewandowski’s morale. He’d come for glory, he’d come for acclaim and he’d barely considered the idea that European football, with Barça, might be a humiliating experience.

From the point at which he came to terms with all this, a revival began. Two recent pieces of evidence underline the point.

Barcelona spent last week facing two matches of huge importance, both of which they could quite easily have lost, which would have effectively ended their season: Napoli at home in the Champions League and Atletico Madrid away in LaLiga.

The first game was railroaded toward victory when Lewandowski, running on to a glorious penalty box chance, opted to dummy Raphinha‘s cute cut-back in the 15th minute. His choice fooled two Napoli defenders and Fermín López was left in splendid isolation to side-foot the ball home for 1-0. Go watch it again; it was very smart, very selfless team play from the striker.

The point is that this was an action about which, last season, Lewandowski would unquestionably have had tunnel vision. Ball in the box? Young kid behind me? Two defenders potentially in my way? I’m the mighty Robert Lewandowski — my ball, my chance. It would have been the wrong choice and Napoli would have escaped punishment.

Next example.

Barça were 2-0 up at Atleti’s Metropolitano Stadium on Sunday and Lewandowski, left slightly adrift by the pace of the 65th-minute attack, made a good catch-up sprint to arrive at the edge of the penalty area just as Jules Koundé is looking to make a pass. The France international lays the ball backwards and, admirably, Barcelona’s veteran striker has nothing on his mind other than: “What’s the best option?”

Again, there were countless moments last year when the adrenaline of “This is my moment” would have overwhelmed Lewandowski. Time for some Polish magic! followed by a low-percentage shot rifled towards Jan Oblak‘s top corner that would have, in all likelihood, roared over the bar. Instead he looks up, takes aim and lifts an absolutely millimetre-perfect cross onto the head of the onrushing Lopez (again) who powers the ball home for 3-0. Glorious.

It’s worth noting that the unselfish, team-oriented Lewandowski is also getting his rewards in football’s version of quid pro quo. In each of those matches he scored goals of his own, the clinching 3-1 goal in midweek which sends Barça through to play Paris Saint-Germain in the last eight and the brilliantly executed 2-0 strike in Madrid on Sunday.

The better he plays for the team, the better his personal rewards are. It’s a lesson worth learning.

“This was probably the best game of the season for me, but that’s not the important thing … the important thing is that, as a team, we played very well indeed,” Lewandowski told LaLiga TV after going second in the table by beating Atletico (who, in theory, they might still face again if the two Spanish teams beat PSG and Borussia Dortmund, respectively, in the Champions League quarterfinals.)

Of course, there are nuances to add.

In February, as soon as elimination from the Copa del Rey removed Barcelona from a punishing three-games-per-week treadmill, Xavi took what’s proving to be a smart risk by greatly increasing the athletic intensity of training. Doing so midseason, with tired players and facing an already gritty injury list, was a risk, but it has paid huge dividends.

Barça are playing better, more confident, winning football week by week, and Lewandowski has benefitted hugely. Both personally, because he’s much sharper, and in terms of what type of team he’s playing in.

Finally, Xavi’s decision to cover the vast gap left by Sergio Busquets‘ departure by moving Andreas Christensen to pivote in the middle of midfield has added defensive rigour to the team and allowed guys like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, Ilkay Gündogan and Lopez, alternatively, to play much higher up the pitch and much closer to Lewandowski. He’s less isolated, he’s got more passing options and he’s getting better service. It’s all a process.

But the return to happy days for Robert Lewandowski began with him shaking off the malaise that badly afflicted him last year, and about which too few were bold enough to write critically. What will be his reward during the remnants of Barcelona’s LaLiga and Champions League seasons? Stay tuned: big Bobby’s back on his game and it’s fun to watch.