The parable of Lewandowski’s frustrating first season in Dortmund

Words By Euan McTear Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 19, 2018

One. Two. Three. Four. No way, it’s five! It took just nine second-half minutes for substitute Robert Lewandowski to score an incredible five goals against Wolfsburg in 2015. The Allianz Arena crowd collectively gushed. Those who weren’t there soon found out about it too, as social media went wild with excitement. Everybody already knew that the Polish striker was one of the best in the world. Now he had a signature moment to underline his excellence.

But Robert Lewandowski hadn’t always hit the back of the net quicker than you could say, well, Robert Lewandowski. In the 2010/11 season, following his €4.5m move from Lech Poznan to Borussia Dortmund, it took him until December to score his fifth goal of the campaign and he finished with a total of nine that season, eight of them in the Bundesliga and one in the Europa League. Even though Jürgen Klopp remained enthusiastic about the man he had called the most exciting player he’d seen in 10 or 15 years, not all in Germany were convinced. Just a few years before he would become one of the greatest strikers football fans in the country had ever seen, he was labelled ‘Lewandoofski’, with ‘doof’ meaning ‘goofy’ in German, and ‘Chancentod’, meaning ‘the killer of chances’.

There were two reasons for Lewandowski’s low goalscoring tally in 2010/11, the only season in his entire senior career in which he failed to hit double figures. The first is that he wasn’t a guaranteed starter due to the presence of Lucas Barrios. It wasn’t until December 5th that the Pole was given his first Bundesliga start, with Barrios out through injury, and Lewandowski made the most of that 90-minute outing by scoring in the victory over Nuremberg. In fact, five of his nine goals were scored when he featured in the starting XI, proving that he could make an impact when given sufficient time on the pitch.

The second reason, though, is that Lewandowski also wasted a lot of chances, hence why he wasn’t preferred to Barrios, who scored 21 goals that year. The Paraguayan logically played more minutes than the 22-year-old Pole, but his goalscoring ratio was better too, with Barrios netting once every 155 minutes compared to Lewandowski’s once every 220 minutes. The step up in quality from the Polish league, where he’d been top scorer the previous season as Lech Poznan won the title for the first time in 17 years, was steep. “The difference between the Ekstraklasa and Bundesliga level of play was enormous and Polish players who go west feel as if they have to learn everything from scratch,” he even admitted on his website.

Towards the end of the 2010/11 season Lewandowski’s performances did significantly improve and there were clear glimpses of greatness. In fact, he improved so much that Klopp started playing Barrios and Lewandowski together, with the latter taking a spot away from a midfielder to slot in as a second striker or a No.10. This partnership powered Die Schwarzgelben towards Bundesliga glory, with Lewandowski scoring three goals and providing two assists over the course of the final 10 matches, nine of which he started. Fittingly, both strikers scored in the 2-0 win over Nuremberg at Signal Iduna Park that saw them clinch the title, the club’s first since 2002.

Barrios returned from the 2011 Copa America with an injury and this saw Lewandowski become the default starting centre-forward. But something had changed. Something had clicked. With a transitional season under his belt, having finished the previous year in decent form, having become closer to the rest of the squad, and not just to fellow Poles Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek, and having become more familiar with the German language, Lewandowski was on fire.

In the 2011/12 season he was a regular starter and netted a total of 30 goals as the Black and Yellows retained their league title and won the German Cup too. His goalscoring ratio improved from one goal every 220 minutes to one every 135. No longer was he called ‘Lewandoofski’ or ‘Chancentod’. Now his teammates nicknamed him ‘The Body’, a name coined by Nuri Sahin because he was so muscly and strong. His wife Anna Stachurska, a karate champion and nutritionist, had changed his diet and he became so much fitter that other Dortmund players even called her for advice too.

Klopp also deserves a lot of credit for helping Lewandowski to become a 30-goal-a-season striker. Firstly, because he didn’t discard him after a so-so first year, like many coaches in modern football might have wanted to. Secondly, because he dedicated time and effort to refining the striker’s skillset, even holding one-on-one finishing sessions against Lewandowski, in which there was always a €50 note at stake. The striker hasn’t forgotten that Klopp helped him in this way. “Klopp improved my finishing,” he explained in an interview with The Times last year. “When I came to Dortmund it wasn’t as good. He told me, he showed me what I had to do. He made it clear that my finishing had to be better. That is what I learnt.”

After scoring just nine in that 2010/11 season, Lewandowski has netted at least 25 in each of his seasons since then, three of them in Dortmund and four of them in Munich, where he already has 32 in the 2017/18 season, meaning he could break his record of 43 goals in one campaign, set last year. “I never thought about giving up or about throwing it all away, as I hadn’t worked so hard to get so far and to then give up,” he told Kicker magazine at the time. It’s an inspirational turnaround and one that others can take something away from.

The parable of Lewandowski’s frustrating first season in Dortmund just goes to show that we shouldn’t judge a striker by their first season at a new club, especially when that club is based in a new country and a different culture. Perhaps Álvaro Morata will explode into life and hit 30 goals for Chelsea next year. Maybe Ousmane Dembélé will become a Barcelona legend once he settles in and suffers fewer injuries. Alexandre Lacazette might not be the flop that some Arsenal fans think he is. Patience helped Lewandowski became a superstar. It can help others do likewise.

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