Robert Lewandowski was Barcelona’s big post-Messi gamble. It hasn’t entirely paid off

“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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There was a situation to resolve here. From the team’s tactical perspective, they had to find a better fit for their star striker. From the player’s side, he needed to recover the form he showcased in 2022.

Instead of a solution being found, things only got worse.


Lewandowski’s four goals in three matches followed a six-match dry spell (DAX Images/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“We do not possess the quality of 2010 Barcelona, we just don’t. We need to run our socks off. If we don’t run like animals, we won’t win games. If we can’t be clinical, we need to have soul as a team. This is Barcelona, things need to change.”

After his side’s final league match of 2023, Xavi directed his most critical words as Barca manager. They had just managed to get away with a scrappy 3-2 win against La Liga’s bottom side Almeria, in a game they were drawing 1-1 at the break.

A few days later, it emerged that Lewandowski had come in for strong criticism from Xavi in a half-time dressing-room address that railed against a lack of intensity and aggression among his players.

By that point, coaching staff sources had already started to describe Lewandowski’s goalscoring effectiveness as below what was expected. They also thought he had lost some of his strength in individual duels, and were concerned by his worsening link-up play.

Comparing his La Liga stats for this season and last (according to Fbref.com), Lewandowski has a similar rate of balls miscontrolled per game (around 2.7) and aerial duels won (53.6 per cent last season; 52.8 per cent this season). But his passing success rate has decreased significantly.

For short passes, there’s a drop from 83.9 per cent last season to 77. 7 per cent this season, while medium-range passes fall from 77.1 per cent to 71.4 per cent, and long-range passes from 65.2 per cent to 55.6 per cent.

His expected goals (xG) data does not look too bad at this point. Over 2022-23, he scored 23 goals from 24.3 xG in La Liga, while this season he is on 12 goals from 14.6 xG.

However, it is worth pointing out that, before his four goals from Barca’s last three league games, he was on eight goals from 12.1xG and had only scored three times in the competition since September (with two matches out injured).

Lewandowski has so far scored 17 times and provided six assists across 33 games in all competitions this season. His match-winning strike against Celta on Saturday was his 50th for Barca.

And yet this term Xavi has subbed him off four times with the team drawing and in need of goals (against Real Sociedad, Las Palmas, Real Betis and Villarreal). It is also clear that team-mates have been struggling to connect with him. Last season he averaged 34.3 touches per league game. His average so far this campaign is 26.7.

Is Lewandowski entirely to blame for having slightly lower numbers at this stage of his career? Probably not — and clearly Xavi’s change of system also had an effect.

But off the pitch, there have been issues too.


Lewandowski and Yamal, pictured in September (Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Lewandowski is known to be an honest character. As soon as he believes something is wrong, he will say it. This has led to some moments of friction.

In February last year, dressing-room sources said that after Manchester United knocked Barca out of the Europa League at Old Trafford, Lewandowski had a verbal exchange with Ansu Fati, who he criticised for being too selfish and not combining with team-mates when he had better options than to shoot.

This season, in November against Deportivo Alaves, we also saw Lewandowski complaining to 16-year-old Lamine Yamal when the winger decided to shoot instead of crossing.

But this friction does not reveal a fundamentally bad relationship, and no one in the dressing room has ever doubted Lewandowski’s commitment to the team. When Xavi personally told players of his decision to step down, a day after he announced it at a January post-match press conference, Lewandowski showed his appreciation for the work he had done in a tough moment for the club. Xavi was particularly moved by that.

Hours later, Lewandowski showed he could still be counted as one of the dressing-room leaders by organising a team dinner at his home in Castelldefels, which all the first-team players attended. It was a team-building activity, held with the approval of the club, to help focus minds on the rest of the season to come.


So what’s next for Lewandowski at Barcelona?

With Barcelona needing to sell players before thinking about how to reshape their squad this summer (and appoint a new manager), multiple senior sources at the club say they would welcome a lucrative offer for him.

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But, here — as with several others of those Barca would ideally like to move on — the power is on the player’s side. Under contract until at least 2025, he has no desire to leave. He also fully believes he is capable of overcoming his recent dip in form and returning consistently to his goalscoring best.

Lewandowski dreamed for years of joining Barcelona, and sources close to the player say they understand how the atmosphere around the club can turn particularly bitter when things do not go to plan.

In terms of his contract, he has one more year fully guaranteed before an option for a fourth that will be automatically triggered if he plays over 55 per cent of Barca’s games during 2024-25.

All the same, we can expect pressure might come in the summer, in the form of media reports suggesting how beneficial his departure could be for the club’s finances. Lewandowski’s camp is fully aware of what happened with Frenkie de Jong in 2022, when Barca spent the summer trying to force him out.

But, for the moment, despite the doubts among a coaching team that is set to depart, despite the extra tension and scrutiny his position brings, Lewandowski is in the exact place he wants to be. And for him and Barcelona, there should be no immediate concern more pressing than Wednesday’s trip to Naples.

(Top photo: DAX Images/NurPhoto via Getty Images)