From ‘cold champion’ to world’s best: Robert Lewandowski’s journey to No 1

There is a video with the title “Robert Lewandowski – All 250 Bundesliga Goals” on YouTube, lovingly prepared by the official Bundesliga account to celebrate the Bayern Munich striker reaching that milestone.

The only small problem is that even on the day it went up, 18 December, it was out of date. The Pole actually scored twice against Wolfsburg on the 16th, meaning he had 251 goals in 332 Bundesliga games. There was a solution though: the producer simply added a strapline saying “but it doesn’t end there …” and included the 251st strike as well.

A day after the video had gone up, however, Lewandowski scored another two goals – against Bayer Leverkusen to ensure Bayern stayed top for the winter break – and this time there has been no update. What’s the point? The goals arrive at such an irrepressible speed that it is almost impossible to keep up.

The first goals on that video are more than a decade old, stemming from when he had just arrived at Borussia Dortmund from Lech Poznan for £340,000. He looks scrawnier, less chiselled, less powerful, but the quality of the goals is still outstanding. The first is a towering header against, fittingly, Dortmund’s fiercest rival, Schalke. The second is a beautiful chip over the Kaiserslautern goalkeeper Tobias Sippel, the third a high volley from a rebound.

He already appears to be, at the age of 22, the complete striker. But as he knows now, he was nowhere near to being the finished product. As luck would have it, though, he had Jürgen Klopp as a manager at Dortmund and the German constantly pushed Lewandowski to improve, from the moment he arrived in 2010 to when Lewandowski left for Bayern Munich four years later.

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One of the first things Klopp commented on was Lewandowski’s body language; it was too nondescript. No one knew what kind of mood he was in. Was he focused? Was he angry? Neither Klopp nor teammates knew what was going on. After that they worked on his attitude in training.

As Lewandowski told the Guardian in an interview in February: “I am doing shooting in training and sometimes you could think: ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s just training.’ But no, if you focus maybe it can be easier in the game. If you have 20 chances in training and score 20 goals during the game maybe you are more likely to score.

Robert Lewandowski, pictured scoring for Borussia Dortmund in 2011, used to bet coach Jürgen Klopp over how many goals he would score in training. Photograph: Friso Gentsch/EPA

“At Dortmund we bet that if I score 10 goals then Jürgen Klopp gives me €50. The first training sessions, I score three or four. Then after five, six, seven sessions I score seven, eight. Then after three months I score every training more like 10. After a few weeks Jürgen said: ‘No more, it’s too much for me. I don’t want to pay you any more.’”

Lewandowski’s move to Bayern on a free in 2014 –was unpopular with Dortmund fans but they had had time to get used to the idea after he announced his plans as early as November 2013. At Bayern he got to work with Pep Guardiola, who improved him tactically, and, step by step, he was becoming the complete striker.

There were times when it looked as if he would leave, times when a move to Real Madrid seemed possible, but he always stayed. It has not been plain sailing for Lewandowski – he and the rest of the team struggled for periods under Carlo Ancelotti and Robert Kovac – but with Hansi Flick in charge it all seems to have come together.

In August Lewandowski finally won the Champions League, seven years after losing the final with Klopp and Dortmund against Bayern. He is at the peak of his powers. Last week he won the Best Fifa award for men’s player of the year and this week he finished first in the Guardian’s 100 best male footballers in the world – by some distance. Of the 241 judges, 201 had him as their No 1 and he beat Lionel Messi by 1,405 points.

Robert Lewandowski added the Champions League title to his honours list, seven years after his previous appearance in the final.

Robert Lewandowski added the Champions League title to his honours list, seven years after his previous appearance in the final. Photograph: Michael Regan/Uefa/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Yet despite the goals and the trophies it does not seem as if Lewandowski has anywhere near the adulation that Messi, for example, has had throughout his career. Part of the reason for that is aesthetics; watching Messi in full flow is mesmerising whereas Lewandowski is more an effective player.

However, there is also a feeling that Lewandowski is an individualist in a team sport. As Christoph Biermann pointed out in an article 11Freunde in 2019, headlined “the cold champion”, there was no uproar from Dortmund fans when he left for Bayern, no mourning (unlike when Mario Götze or Mats Hummels signed for the same team). And when there was talk about Lewandowski leaving Bayern for Real there was no mass protest outside Säbener Straße, no online fury towards the club.

As Lewandowski has evolved he has become more of a team player. Flick has spoken about Lewandowski being the best No 9 in the world “not only for his goals but the way he acts as a leader for the team” and Thomas Müller spoke recently about how his teammate has changed in the past few seasons.

Robert Lewandowski new mindset means ‘he can almost enjoy an assist now’, his teammate Thomas Müller joked.

Robert Lewandowski new mindset means ‘he can almost enjoy an assist now’, his teammate Thomas Müller joked. Photograph: Philipp Guelland/EPA

“He has always wanted to score goals but now he wants to score goals to win games, with the team,” Müller said. “You can’t praise him high enough for taking this step.” Then the Bayern No 25 grinned and said, only half-jokingly: “It has even gone so far that he can almost enjoy an assist now.”

Assists will never be Lewandowski’s forte because, for him, nothing compares to goals. His dedication to the game and to improvement has made him the best player in the world. It has taken some time but he has finally got there.