Few can argue Robert Lewandowski’s inclusion among the elite strikers of Europe. The Pole who was unplayable at times in his Dortmund days made the move to Bayern and plenty wondered how he would fit into Pep Guardiola’s system. Alankrith Shankar looks back at Lewandowski’s first season at the Allianz Arena.
On the 4th day of 2014, it was a cold January morning in Munich, but a colder one at the offices of Borussia Dortmund. Arch rivals Bayern had just announced the signing of Polish hitman – Robert Lewandowski on a free transfer. The then leading goal scorer in the Bundesliga was set to leave Dortmund just a season after BvB had lost Mario Gotze to Bayern. The wounds were just starting to heal for Dortmund and all that this move did was cut it wide open again. But Dortmund didn’t stop planning for the future. They invested in attacking options, which at that time were considered to be smart buys. The signings of Ji from Augsburg, Adrian Ramos from Berlin and the fast peaking Immobile from Torino were seen as the means to cope with the loss of the gunning Pole who scored goals out of nothing in black & yellow, regularly bringing the crowd at the Signal Iduna Park to their feet with his mesmerizing skills.
Such was the reputation that Lewandowski had made for himself before he made the switch down south to the Allianz Arena. On the first of July, it was official. Lewandowski had set foot in the Bayern training facilities and was unveiled in front of a packed media house full of questions. The most important question asked by most present in the room and by Bayern fans all over the world were, how long is he going to take to adapt? And while most knew Lewandowski was an upgrade from Mandzukic, would his performances actually give Bayern that edge just like how Mandzukic did? Everyone had their own versions of answers to both these questions. Some believed that Pep would tailor his tactics around the supply lines to fit the new goal scoring machine that he has at his disposal while some believed that Pep would play a false 9 and Lewandowski would be utilised only if this experiment failed. Popular German sports tabloids even came up with formations that had Lewandowski only featuring on the Bayern bench, just after the German squad had returned to pre-season training after the successful World Cup run. But all these were put to rest when Lewandowski had a blistering pre-season run as he scored 6 times, which included 2 audacious goals against Wolfsburg in the finals of the Telekom Cup.
Scoring in pre-season doesn’t make you a big success story and definitely not enough to justify usurping Mario Mandzukic, who played an instrumental role in his 2 years at Bayern during which he won 5 trophies (granted he did have a bust up with Pep and didn’t feature towards the end of 2013-14 season, but he did play a crucial role on the journey to securing the domestic title and cup). The Pole had to show his worth in the big games, scoring goals for fun, just like Mario did. These were things Lewandowski was used to doing at Dortmund, but perhaps at Bayern the spotlight shone even brighter. A European power house like Bayern will always have critics preying on the players’ performances. If you don’t reach the levels that have been set at the club in the past, there’s pressure mounted on you. Everyone is talking about the performances, fans start getting nervous, and you can sense it in the stadium. Gareth Bale’s season at Real Madrid is a fine example for this. He got them goals, but it wasn’t enough. The expectations were much higher than what was being delivered. Unfortunately for Lewandowski, that became his case at the Allianz Arena until the latter stages of the season.
It all started well in pre-season, and Lewandowski took that form into the Bundesliga as he scored his first official goal for Bayern in the 2nd game of the season against what was a solid defensive unit in the form of Schalke. Then came up the international break. A change in systems led to lack of momentum for the Pole. In the Polish side, Lewandowski was given a strict role of playing as only a goal scorer/poacher whereas at Bayern, he played more as a creative striker. He was given the freedom to move around the pitch. In the Schalke game, you could see Pep giving Lewandowski instructions to take control of the wider areas of the pitch and not just expect the supply from the pin-point passes of Xabi Alonso. This change in systems caused a slight problem as Lewandowski failed to net certain chances in the following 3 games, including the tactically breathtaking visit of Manchester City. He scored a thunderous volley against Paderborn and it all seemed normal once again for Lewandowski. His partnership with Gotze was working the same magic that it had previously done at BvB. It was like seeing two brothers being united again. This carried on till the Hannover home fixture, which led to Lewandowski’s first brace at the club. However, the game proved to be a false dawn and Lewandowski didn’t seem to be the same player that came from BvB. Some fans were starting to get frustrated at the chances he missed; even starting support groups online, to allow Bayern to give him a Dortmund jersey to where underneath his Bayern tricot, hoping that it would inspire him to provide the same goal scoring performances at the Allianz Arena.
Don’t get me wrong. He scored goals in every alternate game until the winter break ending with 9 goals in all competitions in the first half of the season. Paltry and poor by his standards though. This was a striker who notched 24 goals with 7 assists in BvB’s run for the meisterschale in 2012-13. He was the same man who pipped Mario Mandzukic to be the leading goal scorer in the Bundesliga just before he joined Bayern. Everyone was stunned at the absence of goals for Lewandowski. Of course, by everyone I mean only the Bayern fans and not the whole anti-Bayern football community who just chose to automatically make Dortmund their second favourite club. Some of those fans somehow even managed to make Dortmund’s poor display in the Bundesliga Bayern’s fault and not Klopp’s defensive tactics failing. Coming back to the topic, the problem could be easily identified though. Lewandowski was lacking supply especially from the wings. As Gotze was moved to a wider role and with Robben’s eye for goal scoring, the supply to Lewandowski was being provided by only Thomas Muller. The two formed a fine partnership but it was mostly Muller who came out as the goal scorer. Lewandowski became a crucial part of the build-up play and while he was brought in to the squad to finish things off, he was still making things happen. Obviously, that was not the role expected, but the Bayern boss wasn’t complaining as the team was still killing games off with big margins while Lewandowski also got on the score sheet now and then. But the general public were not happy and as a goal scorer, I’m sure neither was Robert.
The second half of the season resumed and this trend followed for quite some time, at least up until March. This was when Bayern were entering a crucial phase of the season. Pep had half of his attacking outlets injured and Mario Gotze had failed to continue his early season form. The Spaniard was desperate for Lewandowski to become that goal scorer who terrorized defences, once again. At the start of March, as the season had entered its twilight period, Lewandowski was still in the top 5 goal scorers of the league scoring 9 goals in total (1 behind Muller). Bayern were facing the absence of crucial attacking duo, Robbery in this period and this really got Lewandowski going. He started to show the same goal scoring prowess that had made him a household name at Dortmund. His performances in the Champions League rout of Donetsk and Porto were indications that the sleeping giant had woken up from hibernation. In April, he showed his true qualities scoring crucial goals in the late season fixtures in the Bundesliga, while also scoring the first goal in the Pokal semifinals, but then he suffered a facial fracture thanks to Mitchel Langerak. The fracture did little to stop Lewandowski though. Donning a facial mask, Lewandowski featured in the Champions League semifinals. He did miss a crucial goal scoring chance at the Camp Nou (one of the very few Bayern got), yet the second half of the season was much better than the first. Funny how he managed 11 goals without Robbery, 2 of Bayern’s better players if not the best, while with them he managed only 5 goals.
Maybe he hasn’t matched Mario Mandzukic yet in terms of trophies, but the legacy of Robert Lewandowski will hopefully be as good as the one his predecessor left. The performance at home against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga, on April 11th certainly showed the Lewandowski of old. He scored an audacious goal, by flicking over the defender and volleying it to the right corner of the net, and then scored goal #10 for 2015 in the second half, truly announcing that he has adapted to the new system at Bayern Munich. As for Dortmund, well their “smart” investments really didn’t pay off. Ji made his way back to Augsburg, while the less said the better about Ramos. Immobile was only a shadow of what people expected of him. I woudn’t be surprised if a few Dortmund fan boys blamed his performance on Bayern too. Jokes apart, Lewandowski has definitely been a gain for Bayern and as for Dortmund, the failure of Klopp’s replacements has left a Lewandowski sized hole for Tuchel to fill.
Written by Alankrith Shankar