Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller Reborn with New-Look Bayern

Ian Holyman@@ian_holymanFeatured ColumnistDecember 11, 2016

Robert Lewandowski seems to be enjoying his football again.
Robert Lewandowski seems to be enjoying his football again.Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

"The five goals in nine minutes last year against Wolfsburg was unbelievable. It doesn't happen twice," Robert Lewandowski had not so bravely predicted, per Sport Bild, before Saturday's game at the Allianz Arena.

He was right. There were five goals, but there was no iconic image of Carlo Ancelotti holding his head in childish disbelief as his No. 9 grabbed them all in world record-breaking fashion as Pep Guardiola had done so memorably.

There were two though for Lewandowski, who seems to have refound—if not quite the Midas touch that wrote him into history in September 2015—at least the ability to cause Bundesliga defences significant problems once again.

With his thumb in his mouth and the ball up his shirt after his gorgeous free-kick against Atletico Madrid, he announced to the world his wife, Anna, is pregnant. Her husband has himself recently been reborn.

The season had started so well. A hat-trick in the opening-day defeat of Werder Bremen was followed by two further strikes in the next two games, and Lewy appeared well on the way to at least matching the 30 league goals that he registered last season as the Bundesliga's leading scorer.

And then, nothing. Well, almost nothing: Two goals in the following nine league games was a microcosm of Bayern's problems with Ancelotti's 4-3-3 formation. It was also a symptom.

His team-mates could not adapt to provide him with chances; he could not adapt to help them help him. Isolated, barely getting a touch, nevermind a goalscoring opportunity, Lewandowski was largely a spectator, battling gamely—though more often than not in vain—for the odd high ball knocked his way.

Change of formation, and—voila!—normal service is resumed. Five goals in his last three competitive outings is much more like it. What is more clear still is that the joy has returned to Lewandowski's game.

The predatory instincts are clearly still intact. His movement to follow the Arturo Vidal shot that was deflected into his path for his first against Wolfsburg was classic goalscorer's play: Hit the space and gamble on the ball coming to you.

His second was similar in that there was an element of luck in the ball coming to him. But his razor-sharp awareness and reactions made the most of it to divert Thomas Muller's shot beyond Diego Benaglio. These, however, were not opportunities that were falling to him in previous weeks.

Suddenly, there is so much more to Lewandowski's game, too. A number of times, he peeled off to the left, pulling Wolfsburg's wearied and worried defence still more out of shape. Perhaps it was the chance to test himself one-on-one with compatriot and former Borussia Dortmund team-mate Jakub Blasczykowski that encouraged him to do so. Yet it gave Franck Ribery, so effective on Saturday afternoon, and Arjen Robben the chance to dart inside him and plough menacingly into the box.

He is so much more involved in the game than he was in the 4-3-3, which can only be a good thing for Bayern and bad news for opponents. And for them, there is still worse to come in a few months. "When you become a father, you're motivated," said Ancelotti, per Sport Bild, after the Atletico game. "I think he'll be more motivated in the future."

Relief and joy as Muller ends his Bundesliga drought.
Relief and joy as Muller ends his Bundesliga drought.CHRISTOF STACHE/Getty Images

For Lewandowski, it is his boss' change of heart that has changed him, and his team-mate, Thomas Muller. "Through the new system, we have more opportunities to play attacking football," the forward said, per Bild, after the recent 3-1 win over Mainz, the first game in which Ancelotti had gone for a 4-2-3-1 system. "A lot goes through the middle of the pitch. The system worked well. For me, it's important to have Thomas behind me. And it's better for him that he can come from further back." 

It is surely no coincidence Lewandowski's renaissance mirrors that of Muller given how well the pair performed together in an almost identical setup under Guardiola last season. The Germany international looked even more lost than Lewandowski in a wide position of a front three of the 4-3-3, his uncanny ability to exploit space wasted, his nose for goal—20 strikes in the Bundesliga 2015/16 attest to that—equally unused.

The game against Mainz, in which he was used centrally, marked a sea change in Muller's season. The 90 minutes against Wolfsburg confirmed it: Muller, too, is back. Not that he had all that much confidence in himself to break his Bundesliga goalscoring duck against the toothless Wolves.

"Before the game, I had bet with Mr. Rummenigge [Bayern's CEO]. It's funny, because I had bet against myself, that I wouldn't score," Muller admitted, per Bild. "But I have paid and Mr. Rummenigge is very happy."

It is hard to imagine the two-time Ballon d'Or winner's smile being as wide as that of Muller after turning in Robben's miscued shot to find the net just a minute shy of 1,000 without doing so.

But like his team-mate Lewandowski, Muller's contribution to Bayern's play has increased exponentially in the last three games. Against Schalke and Hamburg, games played earlier this season, his passing percentage was down in the 60s. It was 70 percent against Mainz and 78 percent against Wolfsburg. In the two earlier games, played in 4-3-3, he contributed five crosses in total. He matched that in just 90 minutes against Wolfsburg.

And without the change in formation, Muller would almost certainly not have been in the position required to turn Robben's bad miss into a goal. "It's a good thing, but not world changing," said Muller, per kicker, after the game. "I have always looked for goals, but I wasn't going mad with it. I was always relaxed about the subject."

Change the world, it might not. It will almost certainly change Bayern's season for the better, though, and it probably means a few sore heads among Ancelotti's squad on Sunday morning.

"Now we're league leaders and that will do this evening's Christmas part good," Muller told Bayern's official website post-match. "In recent games, we have played good football. Now we want to take what we've done in the last two games to stay first for Christmas."

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