The future of Borussia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski was one of world football’s worst-kept secrets. With his contract expiring this summer, it was long believed he had agreed to join Bayern Munich, a move which was confirmed by the Bavarian giants last week. While other clubs around Europe had been linked with the Polish striker, it seems they never stood a chance at seeing the 25-year-old wearing their colours.
What this move does do, however, is raise a far more difficult question about the future of another widely admired goal scorer, Mario Mandzukic. It seems absurd to think Bayern could want to sell a player who, after arriving just over 18 months ago, has already fired them to six trophies. With 30 goals in 54 appearances for the club, the Croatian has acquitted himself well at the Allianz Arena, working tirelessly to help the side in ways which cannot be reflected merely by looking at how many times he finds the back of the net.
Indeed, Mandzukic is the type of striker who thrives whether or not his name is on the score sheet, as we can see by looking at his performances from this season. In the 3-0 victory over Dortmund, he played only the first 56 minutes, yet the Croatian won two tackles and three aerial battles as he helped his side fight for possession, working hard in wide areas to prevent his team from being overwhelmed.
There is no possibility that the announcement from Bayern will usher in a January move for Mandzukic, and he could well opt to remain at the club after the summer too, given that he is under contract until 2016. Having initially struggled to adjust to Pep Guardiola’s system, he has now regained his best form and has 12 goals in 20 games thus far in 2013-14.
With this year being a World Cup year, he may also have no problem vying for playing time with Lewandowski and, having paid a combined €13 million for the pair, cash-rich Bayern would certainly be in no rush to sell him. His future may well depend on his attitude at finding himself no longer an automatic first choice, with dressing-room harmony being a vital ingredient to Guardiola’s teams. The Catalan has rarely tolerated dissenting voices within his squad, but he will surely hope that with Claudio Pizarro moving on, Mandzukic remains professional.
Another factor to consider is the playing style Bayern have adopted under the guidance of the former Barcelona coach, which is slightly different to systems we have seen from him previously. The percentage of possession—currently an average of 71.1, the highest of any team in Europe’s top five leagues according to WhoScored.com—is similarly dominant and the pressing just as relentless, but there are differences to those looking closely enough.
The biggest is undoubtedly Mandzukic, a player far more similar to classic centre-forwards rather than the "false nine" role occupied by Lionel Messi, and that has in turn meant more crosses from wide areas. Indeed, while Barcelona refrained from using them, Guardiola’s Bayern have continued where they left off last season. Of Mandzukic’s 10 league goals this term, no fewer than four have been headers, in comparison to just one of the 11 Lewandowski has netted.
Should he choose to leave, however, Mandzukic would have no shortage of suitors, with numerous clubs across Europe desperate for a quality striker to boost their chances of silverware. Chelsea, with the lack of goals from Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto’o, certainly need a quality addition to their front line, even as Romelu Lukaku returns from his hugely successful loan spell at Everton.
The work-rate and qualities of Mandzukic dovetail neatly with the attributes Jose Mourinho likes his strikers to have, and the Croatian would enjoy the service provided by Oscar, Eden Hazard and others at Stamford Bridge. The 4-2-3-1 employed by the Blues also has many parallels to that in which the striker thrived under Jupp Heynckes last season and he would be a valuable addition to their squad.
He would also be a good fit at Arsenal, where Arsene Wenger’s uptempo passing game and love of pressing suits the former Wolfsburg man perfectly. Elsewhere, Antonio Conte’s Juventus are another team who could pursue Mandzukic, but the continued emergence of the Carlos Tevez-Fernando Llorente partnership would see him face a similar fight for playing time to that presented by Lewandowski’s arrival.
Whether he stays at Bayern Munich or moves elsewhere, it is clear that Mario Mandzukic has the ability, talent and attitude to succeed wherever he plays.
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