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Barcelona’s high-stakes bet on Robert Lewandowski after Messi hasn’t fully delivered

“Everything Robert won at Bayern Munich, the goals he scored, it was all with the aim of ending up where he is now: playing for Barcelona.”

Robert Lewandowski’s career has been full of targets, but two summers ago he fulfilled what is fair to describe as his ultimate ambition. The quote above comes from a source very close to the 35-year-old striker — who, like all those cited in this article, preferred to speak anonymously to protect relationships.

Signing for Barca was a longstanding aim of Lewandowski’s. But since joining for €45million (£38.5m; $48.7m at current rates) in July 2022, not everything has turned as rosily as he might have expected. This season has not been his greatest, and uncertainty has developed around his position at the club — even though this week’s Champions League round-of-16 first leg at Napoli comes as he has begun to show better form in front of goal.

Lewandowski was the star of the show in Barcelona’s La Liga victory at Celta Vigo on Saturday, scoring a brace that included a 97th-minute winner from the penalty spot, and he now has four goals from Barca’s past three matches.

This recent momentum, however, shows up as a rare bright spot when looking back across what has so far been a very disappointing campaign at Barcelona. Lewandowski has not been the only player underperforming, but his status as a marquee signing opens him up to extra scrutiny, and wider concerns over his suitability have been growing for some time.

Lewandowski’s arrival at Barca was meant to signal the true starting point of a new project under Xavi. One of Europe’s most prolific goalscorers was to act as a role model for a new generation and help the club forget Lionel Messi’s traumatic departure.

Now, that ‘project’ has essentially already folded, with Xavi to step down at the end of the season. And Lewandowski looks set for a tense transfer window in the summer, with some at the club already resolved to seeking a sale — unless he can prove the doubters wrong.

“A lot of people believe Barcelona need to have a franchise player. A go-to man who sells shirts, represents the public image of the team and becomes a reason to attract fans to the stadium. Deep down, that was the reasoning behind Lewandowski’s signing in 2022.”

This is how a senior club source describes the gamble Barcelona took two summers ago with Lewandowski’s signing from Bayern. The previous summer had seen the club’s biggest legend, Messi, leaving in tears, while other key figures such as Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba seemed to be reaching the final stages of their careers in Catalonia. It was decided the Camp Nou needed a new idol, and president Joan Laporta looked to Lewandowski.

The deal to bring him did not wholly escape criticism at the time. In the summer of 2021, Barcelona decided not to extend Messi’s contract, with terms already agreed, in order to help solve the club’s financial problems. One year later, they spent €45million on a 33-year-old Lewandowski, signing him to a three-year deal with an option for a fourth. This August, he will turn 36.

If the Messi deal had been completed, the Argentinian would have earned €20million in the first year of his new contract, before then seeing his wage increase significantly. Lewandowski’s annual salary, as an average over four years, is reportedly set at €26m.

But Lewandowski hit the ground running. Over 2022-23, he scored 33 goals and provided eight assists in all competitions. He was La Liga’s top scorer with 23 as Barca won their first league title in four years. Despite once again suffering Champions League failure (they were eliminated at the group stage) Barca fans had some reason to hope they were seeing the start of something bigger.

Yet, you could also see the early signs of problems beginning to build to where they are now.

The 2022 World Cup was clearly the turning point in Lewandowski’s debut season. Before its start, he scored 13 goals in the first 15 La Liga matches of the season, also grabbing five Champions League goals.

After coming back from a disappointing display with Poland (he scored two goals and they were knocked out in the last-16 by France), nothing was quite the same. Lewandowski lost a bit of his spark, which can be normal in a season, but as it turned out, it never really came back.

Lewandowski played 19 more games in La Liga after Qatar 2022, scoring 10 goals, of which four came with the title already secured. Tensions in the dressing room started to appear, as well as frustration with himself. But most significant of all, it also became clear that the best version of Xavi’s Barcelona was not fully compatible with his preferred style of play.

Barca’s Supercopa de Espana victory over Real Madrid in January 2023 is still arguably the most convincing display under Xavi’s tenure. They outclassed their Clasico rivals in a 3-1 win ignited by a tactical tweak: sacrificing one winger for another body in a four-strong midfield.

Xavi was convinced it provided the path to follow, despite the effect it had on Lewandowski.

“I understood this team needed more control and less transitions and that’s why we changed our approach a bit,” he said on the day Barca were crowned league champions following victory over city rivals Espanyol, in May last year.

“We felt better controlling the ball and I prioritised the players that didn’t lose possession. That’s how I understand football, it belongs to that kind of players: the midfielders who are always able to keep the ball.

“Lewandowski didn’t see things quite so positively. In an exclusive interview with The Athletic during Barca’s pre-season tour last summer, he described how he had been left frustrated by the change. He knew losing a winger meant fewer chances to receive balls and crosses into the box, the strongest area of his game.”


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