Robert Lewandowski: The Making of a Modern-Day Goal Machine

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 19, 2018

Marian Wilhelm for B/R

It is when Robert Lewandowski insists he doesn't pay attention to how many goals other strikers score that you are most convinced he does.

Taking Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo out of the equation, since the start of the 2011-12 campaign, no player has scored more goals in European football than Lewandowski, who has averaged 34 per season, first with Borussia Dortmund and now Bayern Munich.

The rangy Poland international has scored 30 goals in the Bundesliga in each of the previous two seasons—a feat last achieved by Gerd Muller in the 1970s—and with 20 goals this season, he is on course to do it again.

He recently became the leading foreign goalscorer in Bayern's history and has entered the all-time top 10 of marksmen in the German top flight. And if the 18-team Bundesliga weren't unique among Europe's five major leagues in having only a 34-game season, he knows he would score even more.

"I don't see how many goals other strikers have because every league is different," Lewandowski told Bleacher Report during an interview at Bayern's Sabener Strasse training centre in Munich's southern suburbs. "In the Bundesliga, you have four games less compared to Spain and England. If you have four more games, you can score maybe six or eight more goals, and maybe more. If I don't play in one or two games in the Bundesliga, I have six games less. It's a big difference."

For someone who professes not to notice how his fellow strikers are faring in front of goal, it's a subject to which Lewandowski has clearly given some thought. Happily, the statistics prove he has little reason to envy any of his contemporaries.

Over the past two-and-a-half seasons, he has scored 112 goals in 130 games in all competitions, an average of 0.86 per game—a rate superior to Luis Suarez (0.84), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (0.83), Harry Kane (0.79) and Edinson Cavani (0.76), and bettered only by Ronaldo (0.96) and Messi (0.88).

Bayern Munich's Polish forward Robert Lewandowski (L) celebrates with Bayern Munich's Austrian midfielder David Alaba (R) after scoring his team's second goal during the German first division Bundesliga football match between VfL Wolfsburg and FC Bayern M

Lean, strong, supremely agile, blessed with two bewitchingly soft feet and capable of scoring from anywhere within 20 yards of the opposition goal, Lewandowski makes a compelling case to be regarded as the outstanding No. 9 of his generation. At the age of 29, he still has plenty of goals left in the tank.

This year presents him with two major objectives: winning a first Champions League title with Bayern and enjoying a successful first World Cup with Poland. In the meantime, he continues to hone a scoring ability that only a handful of strikers in each generation possess.

Lewandowski was always likely to become an athlete. His father, Krystof, was a Polish judo champion who also played football in the Polish second tier, and his mother, Iwona, was a professional volleyball player. His elder sister, Milena, played volleyball as well, turning out for Poland at under-21 level.

As a child, Lewandowski practised judo, volleyball and handball, and his father, who died in 2005, also made sure he did gymnastics. The legacy of Lewandowski's multisports education and the range of movements with which it furnished him is apparent whenever he leaps for a back-post header or hangs in the air, his right leg held at a taut right angle, to bring down a high ball.

His present-day household is equally sporty and health-conscious. Lewandowski's wife, Anna Lewandowska, represented Poland in karate and is a renowned sports nutritionist, with a long-running blog, a range of books and DVDs and more than 1.6 million followers on Instagram.

Lewandowski's career took off at Dortmund in the 2011-12 season when an injury to Lucas Barrios prompted head coach Jurgen Klopp to give him a run at centre-forward. But he also attaches great importance to the decision he made around the same time to allow his then-fiancee to assume responsibility for managing his diet.

"Football is not just what you see on the pitch—it's everything around it. What you do at home is also very important," he said. "I'm lucky because my wife is an expert on diet. She knows what I should eat and what kind of vitamins I should take, and I see the difference [on the pitch]."

Lewandowski's wife, Anna Lewandowska, has helped with his fitness programme.
Lewandowski's wife, Anna Lewandowska, has helped with his fitness programme.ALEXANDRA BEIER/Getty Images

So successful was Lewandowski's approach to nutrition and fitness that at Dortmund he was nicknamed "The Body" by his admiring teammates. Had you told a teenage Lewandowski that he would one day possess a physique comparable to that of an Olympic swimmer (and share a nickname with Elle Macpherson), he might have struggled to believe you. The coaches at one of his first clubs, MKS Varsovia Warsaw, used to despair that he was too scrawny.

"He was very thin," former Varsovia coach Krzysztof Sikorski told the UEFA website in 2013. "His legs were like sticks, and I was always scared that others would break them. I wanted him to be physically stronger and even advised him to eat more bacon!"

The young Lewandowski's spindly frame proved his undoing in 2006 when, in the summer he turned 18, he was released by Polish giants Legia Warsaw because of concerns about his physical robustness. Desperate for an opportunity to prove himself, he dropped down to Poland's third tier and joined Znicz Pruszkow. He finished as the third division's leading scorer in his maiden season, helping Znicz to promotion, and top-scored again in the second tier before Lech Poznan gave him his first experience of top-level football.

Signed by Poznan in June 2008, he scored 14 goals in his first Ekstraklasa season and followed that by scoring a league-leading 18 goals as the club ended a 17-year wait for the title.

Klopp had also had concerns about Lewandowski's physical strength, expressing fears that he was "lightweight," but the striker's sparkling second season with Poznan erased those doubts. Dortmund paid €4.5 million to secure Lewandowski's services in 2010, seeing off competition from Blackburn Rovers.

Playing in support of Barrios, Lewandowski helped Dortmund to the league title in his first season. Then, as the main man in his second season (2012), his 30 goals inspired the club to their first Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal double. Klopp's turbocharged team finished eight points clear of Bayern in the league and then crushed the Bavarians 5-2 in the DFB-Pokal final, a hat-trick by Lewandowski confirming his status as one of the hottest strikers in the game.

In Lewandowski's career, there is a before April 24, 2013, and an after. He was 24 by that stage, a league champion in two countries and a Poland international, but his extraordinary four-goal salvo against Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals moved him into another dimension.

Lewandowski's four-goal performance against Real Madrid helped make him a global superstar.
Lewandowski's four-goal performance against Real Madrid helped make him a global superstar.Frank Augstein/Associated Press/Associated Press

His display in Dortmund's 4-1 first-leg win made him the first player to score four goals in a European Cup semi-final. The historic significance of the achievement was only enhanced by the shimmering quality of the strikes. He beat Pepe to volley in Mario Gotze's cross for his first and then showed a Velcro touch to gather Marco Reus' shot, turn and poke the ball past Diego Lopez for his second.

His hat-trick goal was a gem. When Marcel Schmelzer's drilled cross was deflected into his path, he took one touch to control the ball and then bought himself a yard of space with a sublime, instinctive drag-back before rifling a shot into the top-right corner. An emphatic penalty—drilled down the centre of the goal—completed his masterpiece. Madrid had been dismantled with mechanical precision.

Lewandowski credits Klopp with helping him to improve his finishing, the future Liverpool manager staking €50 bets on training-ground shooting drills in which he would reprise his role as a centre-back from his playing days at Mainz and challenge his star striker to find a way past him.

Lewandowski's time at Dortmund also introduced him to a player who would serve as a key source of motivation over the seasons that followed. Aubameyang joined Dortmund from Saint-Etienne in July 2013. Although Lewandowski responded well to the challenge that his new team-mate's arrival presented—scoring 28 goals to Aubameyang's 16 in their one season together—after Lewandowski left for Bayern the following year, the Gabon striker truly forced him to raise his game.

Before he joined Arsenal last month, Aubameyang had been Lewandowski's main rival in the battle for the Bundesliga's Torjagerkanone top scorer award, finishing second to him in 2016 and then pipping him to the crown—by 31 goals to 30—last season.

"For the last three years, I've competed with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to be the top scorer," Lewandowski told reporters earlier this month. "Now that he's gone, maybe a part of my motivation that came from our duel has also gone. Obviously, when you have that rivalry, you're a bit more motivated."

Lewandowski celebrates with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Lewandowski celebrates with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.AFP/Getty Images

Lewandowski had played with Aubameyang for only four months when he announced in November 2013 that he would leave Dortmund upon the expiration of his contract at the end of the season. Bayern announced his arrival in January 2014.

In leaving the Westfalenstadion to link up with Pep Guardiola at Sabener Strasse, he followed Gotze's lead. But whereas Gotze was castigated for turning his back on his formative club, Lewandowski went with the fans' blessing. He was substituted to a standing ovation in his final home game against Hoffenheim in May 2014. As he walked around the pitch applauding the home support after the match—head bowed, socks around his ankles—he appeared close to tears.

Bayern had beaten Dortmund in the previous season's Champions League final and claimed the spoils in the Bundesliga and the DFB-Pokal in both 2012-13 and 2013-14. There was nothing especially romantic about Lewandowski's decision to follow the trail of silverware leading to Upper Bavaria, but the move elevated his goalscoring to an even higher plane.

Lewandowski scored 25 goals in 49 games, a rate of 0.51 per match, in his first season at Bayern as he adapted to the rigid precepts of Guardiola's "juego de posicion" strategy. But in the following campaign, his rate spiked sharply. He netted 42 goals in 51 games in 2015-16 (a rate of 0.82 per match).

He has found the net with similarly relentless frequency over the season-and-a-half since: 43 goals in 47 games last season (0.91 goals per match) and 27 goals in 32 games (0.84) in the current campaign.

Bayern were a well-oiled machine in the 2015-16 season. With quicksilver wide players Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman supplying the ammunition, Bayern created the most chances of Guardiola's three Bundesliga campaigns (497), helping Lewandowski to hit the 30-goal mark in a league season for the first time in his career and enabling support striker Thomas Muller to notch 20 league goals for the first—and, to date, only—time in his.

(L-R) Bayern Munich's Austrian defender David Alaba, Bayern Munich's Polish striker Robert Lewandowski and Bayern Munich's Brazilian midfielder Douglas Costa celebrate after the third goal during the German first division football Bundesliga match between

Lewandowski has gone through two changes of coach at Bayern—Guardiola giving way to Carlo Ancelotti, Ancelotti to Jupp Heynckes—but his form in front of goal has remained constant. Asked to explain the upsurge in effectiveness that he has enjoyed over the past two-and-a-half seasons, he points to a change in the way he thinks.

"I know that for a striker like me, sometimes it's not important that I score only one goal," he said. "Everyone's expectation is that I score two or three goals [per game], and I can do this. In the end, you can have five to 10 goals more [per season]. I've been thinking about this more, and I've become hungrier as well. If I score one goal in a game, I try to score the second goal. That is my thinking."

Lewandowski's newfound insatiability was brought to bear in astonishing fashion in September 2015 when he came off the bench with Bayern trailing 1-0 to Wolfsburg in a Bundesliga game at the Allianz Arena. He proceeded to score five goals in eight minutes and 59 seconds, setting Bundesliga records for the fastest three-, four- and five-goal hauls by an individual player. Lewandowski also became the first substitute to score five goals in a German top-flight match.

His fifth goal—a spectacular scissor kick from just inside the Wolfsburg box—left Guardiola with his hands on his head, wearing the wide-eyed expression of disbelief previously seen when Messi took James Milner's shorts off on the Camp Nou touchline.

The score board is pictured after the German first division Bundesliga football match FC Bayern Muenchen vs VfL Wolfsburg in Munich, on September 22, 2015.    AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOF STACHE


Guardiola described Lewandowski as "the most professional player I have ever met." Having cracked the goalscoring code, the Bayern No. 9 knows the only thing he needs to do is keep doing what he's been doing.

Away from the pitch, Lewandowski's life is simple. As he drives home from training, he looks forward to playing with his nine-month-old daughter, Klara. He and Anna might take her for an afternoon walk. Evenings are reserved for relaxing and catching up with friends. Apart from the occasional glass of wine, he is teetotal.

His eyes light up at the mention of his daughter, who was born in May. "The first four or five weeks were very difficult because I didn't know exactly what I should do," he said. "I was reading all kinds of books, but life is different—it's not the same as in books! But after five weeks, we learnt that the baby was easy. We don't have any problems because she doesn't cry too much." And if Lewandowski needs to rest up before a big game? "My wife will say to me: 'I'll look after everything. I know that you need to sleep well.'"

Lewandowski enjoys watching sport on television. He is a big fan of motorsports. When his countryman Robert Kubica was making his name as a Formula One driver, Lewandowski was glued to the TV for every race. He struggles, however, to find time for football.

Marian Wilhelm for B/R

"I don't watch much football because ... I have such little time with my family and my friends," he said. "I don't remember the last time I watched a game for 90 minutes. Sometimes I see the games, but only 15 minutes, just to see what's happened."

With five Bundesliga titles to his name—two with Dortmund, three with Bayern—and another on the way, plus a DFB-Pokal triumph with each of his two German clubs, Lewandowski has little left to prove in the domestic game. For now, a Champions League winner's medal has eluded him. That 2013 loss to his future Bayern team-mates with Dortmund in the final at Wembley is the closest he has come to capturing the club game's ultimate prize.

Bayern fell in the semi-finals in 2015 and 2016, and they were left to rue some rough breaks after losing 6-3 on aggregate to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals last season. Rushed back after missing the first leg with a shoulder injury, Lewandowski says he was only "60 percent" fit in the return game at the Bernabeu, where Bayern cancelled out Madrid's 2-1 lead from the first leg only to lose Arturo Vidal to a contentious red card and then see Ronaldo score the pivotal second goal of his match-winning hat-trick from an offside position.

"We could talk about the referee, the decisions, but it doesn't matter," Lewandowski said. "If we had won against Real Madrid, if I had been fit, maybe we would have won the Champions League last year."

If he could be forgiven for harbouring a sense of injustice over the nature of Bayern's elimination from last season's competition, Lewandowski produces a surprisingly phlegmatic answer when he is asked whether, ahead of the first leg of Bayern's last-16 tie against Besiktas, he will consider his career unfulfilled if he never experiences what it feels like to hoist the European Cup above his head.

"No," he said. "I will be very happy because I know what I've done up to now. Football is one life, and then there's your private life. For me, I'm happy in my private life. I know what I've done in football. Of course, I want to win a lot. I want to try to win every title that I can, but I don't think, 'Oh no, I haven't won this.' I will try, and if I do this, I will be just as happy as if I don't win it."

Lewandowski is looking for a successful World Cup with Poland.
Lewandowski is looking for a successful World Cup with Poland.MB Media/Getty Images

Whatever the Champions League knockout rounds may hold in store for Lewandowski and his team-mates, he has already made history with Poland this season. In October, he became the first Polish player to score 50 international goals. In firing Poland to a place at this summer's World Cup in Russia, he set a scoring record of 16 goals in the European qualifying zone. (He had previously equalled David Healy's record for most goals in a European Championship qualifying campaign by scoring 13 on Poland's path to Euro 2016.)

Drawn alongside Senegal, Colombia and Japan in one of the World Cup's most evenly balanced groups, Poland have realistic ambitions of progressing beyond the tournament's group phase for the first time since 1986. Poland have reached only two World Cups in Lewandowski's lifetime—bombing out in the group phase in 2002 and 2006—and his childhood memories of the tournament burn brightly.

"The first World Cup I remember was France 1998, the France-Brazil final. [Zinedine] Zidane scored two goals," he said. "When Poland played at the World Cup in 2002, I remember listening to the games at school before going home. We didn't play well, but now we have very good players and a very good team. Expectations in Poland are very high, but for us, the most important thing is the first game."

By the time that game comes around, against Senegal at Moscow's Otkritie Arena on June 19, the fates will have decided if Lewandowski is to succeed in his pursuit of Champions League glory and whether any more milestones are in store for him between now and the season's end.

They are not questions likely to keep him awake at night. In Lewandowski's rigorously streamlined existence, the twin imposters of dreaming and doom-mongering are treated with equal disdain. Balanced in body and mind, he is guided by a simple, happy formula.

Eat. Sleep. Train. Play. Score.