If Barcelona win their first LaLiga title since 2019 at Espanyol this weekend, much of their success can be attributed to Robert Lewandowski. The Polish striker leads the league’s top scorer list with 19 goals, which is 32% of Barcelona’s goals in the Premier League this season. His match-winning goals against Mallorca and Valencia in 1-0 victories were crucial as Barcelona kept Real Madrid at bay earlier in the season, while he scored two or more goals in a match on five different occasions.
Lewandowski’s arrival at Barcelona last July raised some early doubts. No one questioned his stellar record over a decade in Germany with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, but the €45m transfer fee for the player about to turn 34 has raised eyebrows, especially given Barcelona’s financial constraints. They had to sell the club’s assets to fund last summer’s transfer market splurge, including Lewandowski’s contract.
Nine goals in the first seven league games dispelled those doubts, though Lewandowski hit the ground running in Spain.
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Disappointment in the Champions League followed, but aside from two agonizing strikes against his former team Bayern Munich in Munich, Lewandowski did everything he could to keep Barcelona at the top of Europe. He scored five goals in five matches in the competition, including a brace against Inter that nearly kept the Catalans alive at the expense of the Italians, who are now on the brink of reaching their first final since 2010.
However, with the league title looming – if Barcelona don’t win it this weekend, their 13-point lead at the top with just five games to go presumably is only a matter of time – there are arguably some new questions about Lewandowski’s importance to the team. Scratch under the numbers – 29 goals in 42 appearances in all competitions – and there is a clear difference in his form before and after the World Cup.
So what happened? And should Barcelona be concerned that one of their biggest earners, who turns 35 in August and remains on contract until 2026, has struggled to stay hot in 2023?
Barcelona was among the teams interested in signing Erling Haaland last summer. Once it became clear he was going to join Manchester City, they moved everything to Lewandowski. Paving the way for the deal with Bayern Munich was Barcelona president Joan Laporta’s relationship with the player’s agent, Benny Zahavi, and coach Xavi Hernandez’s desire – bordering on despair – to add him to his squad.
In Lewandowski, Barcelona were looking for a combination of things: they wanted primarily his goals, of course, but they also felt his leadership and experience would help the youth at the club. While veterans such as Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets were still in the first team, sources told ESPN that a lack of experience in attack was seen as an issue.
Lewandowski’s arrival was seen as something that could help develop players like Pedri and Gavi, while reducing pressure on winger Ousmane Dembele to be the main architect in attack.
The superstar signing soon ticked all those boxes as the goals poured in and Barcelona players gushed about Lewandowski’s influence in matches and on the training ground. After 10 matches in all competitions, he scored 12 goals, including a hat-trick in the Champions League. It became a common sight early in the season to see Lewandowski, celebrating after a goal, explain to Pedri, Jaffe or Ansu Fati something he felt they could tweak.
“It’s easy to relate to a player like Lewandowski,” Pedri said in September. “It’s a luxury to play with him.”
Off the field, he quickly settled into his new life in Gava, a small town on the coast from Barcelona. Together with his wife and children, Lewandowski is regularly seen at the local beach, where he often conducts one-on-one training sessions, and has integrated well. He makes no secret of himself: it is not uncommon to see him shopping for his own food at the local supermarkets and taking his children to ballet lessons. The family occasionally takes the train to Barcelona in search of a tourist spot, too, while his partner, Anna, has set up training camps that prove popular with the Polish ex-pat community in Catalonia.
However, before the World Cup at the end of last year, Lewandowski was sent off in a league match against Osasuna. By then, he had scored 18 goals in 19 matches for Barcelona. He then headed to Qatar, where he reached the last 16 with Poland, but nothing has changed at Spotify Camp Nou since his return.
Sources inside the Barcelona dressing room say it is impossible to overstate how much the World Cup mid-season will have on the players. An acknowledgment that was particularly true of Lewandowski, who put so much into the tournament – and in the build-up to it as his country’s leading player – and has struggled to expand those same levels ever since.
Before arriving in Qatar, he averaged 1.07 goals off 4.47 shots per 90 minutes and 0.84 xG. Since the World Cup, those numbers have halved. He has scored 11 goals in 22 games, averaging 0.50 goals per 90 minutes on 3.75 shots with a xG of 0.56. Not only is he scoring fewer goals, but his accuracy in front of goal has also declined.
Barcelona also suffered from post-World Cup sadness even as they continued their path to LaLiga success after winning the first trophy of Xavi’s era, the Spanish Super Cup. Lewandowski scored his goal in the cup final in January, in a thrilling 3-1 victory over Real Madrid. But in LaLiga, Barcelona have gone from 2.36 goals per 90 goals before the World Cup to 1.42 since then. Chances created per 90 minutes have also decreased from 13.21 to 11.00.
It may not be just because of the World Cup. Sources at Barcelona point to the fact that Dembele and Pedri have missed parts of the league season since January. Dembele has just returned after missing 13 LaLiga matches due to injury, while Pedri missed eight matches in February, March and April.
Without them, Lewandowski has struggled as the pair rank among the best creators in the league. Of the players who have played more than 500 minutes, only Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio (2.78 chances per 90) has made more than Dembele (2.71). Although Pedri (1.85) ranks 32nd, it’s hard to tell how much Barcelona – and Lewandowski – will miss him when he’s out given his importance in the earlier stages of play. The answer, though, is a lot.
Jordi Alba (2.43), one of Barcelona’s top designers, is ranked eighth in LaLiga, but he’s been in and out of the Barcelona team, with youngster Alejandro Balde favored at left-back.
Sources close to Lewandowski also highlight the turmoil he faced immediately after the World Cup. The uncertainty surrounding a three-match ban over Barcelona’s appeal against his red card at Osasuna meant he was thrown into the starting line-up against Espanyol, firing an empty half, when preparations were made all week without him. Eventually the three-match ban was upheld and he later stayed out of those matches, which added to the tempo of the match.
There have also been nagging injuries Lewandowski has battled – a hamstring and back problem are factors that have brought him down – but there’s also the inescapable sense that he’s not as sharp as he was at the start of the season. In April alone, he missed chances he would have very likely scored in September. Osasuna’s Aitor Fernandez and Rayo Vallecano’s Stole Dimitrievsky both denied it when you were going to support him in the transfer. Against Atletico Madrid, with goalkeeper Jan Oblak in no man’s land, his decisions let him down. Rather than pass for Ravenha, he shoots wide from 25 yards with the net at his mercy.
“If you don’t score, you’re sad, that’s the life of a striker,” Xavi said after Ferran Torres’ goal gave Barcelona a 1-0 victory over Atletico. “But Robert is still the league’s top scorer, so imagine how other people feel.”
On the training ground, sources insist nothing has changed. Lewandowski is still seen as the leader Barcelona wanted for their attack, and is routinely praised for his hard work and the way he takes charge. With captain Sergio Busquets departing at the end of the season when his contract expires, sources say Lewandowski could then become one of the team’s four captains: Sergi Roberto, Jordi Alba and Marc-Andre ter Stegen are the other three currently.
Lewandowski on the “magic” of Camp Nou and facing Real Madrid
Robert Lewandowski talks about playing for Real Madrid and how he brought a winning mentality to Barcelona.
Don’t expect Barcelona to panic about centre-forwards this summer. Any suggestion within the club that there might be concerns about Lewandowski’s form was quickly dismissed. It is firmly believed that due to his professionalism and goal-scoring pedigree, the first half of the season is a better gauge of what to expect after the summer break than the second half of the season.
After all, players in their mid-30s no longer have to be written off. Edin Dzeko showed that for Inter in the Champions League on Wednesday. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Lionel Messi have all shown the same.
A source told ESPN: “Besides, it’s not like this season has been bad. Robert has scored 29 goals in 42 games. Maybe the level is very high now because of what Messi and Ronaldo – and now Haaland – have done,” but those stats still remain. Traditionally good.”
One thing is for sure, though. Lewandowski will certainly be more demanding than that. “I say to Javi and Badri: ‘We score one goal, okay? Don’t think that’s enough. I think we can score another goal. If we score two goals, why can’t we score three? Interview with ESPN in March.
“I scored five goals in nine minutes [for Bayern against Wolfsburg in 2015]. So why not score five goals in 90 minutes? everything is possible. But you have to want to score these goals. I know I’m 34 now, but it’s only a number because I know I can still play at a high level for a few years.”