If there has been a better player in world football these past two years, Robert Lewandowski’s goal record suggests otherwise.
His 41 Bundesliga goals for Bayern Munich last season were 11 more than anyone else in a major European league. More than anyone has ever managed in the history of that competition, breaking the record set by the late, great Gerd Muller in 1972.
If France Football deigned to award the Ballon d’Or last year, Lewandowski would have been strong favourite to win it. He is expected to be given the gong later this month anyway.
At 33, he has achieved it all in the club game, winning nine of the last 11 German titles – two with Dortmund and seven in a row with Bayern. He added the Champions League in 2020.
But it will be difficult to repeat the feat at international level, despite being the top scorer in qualifying for the European Championship in 2016 and the World Cup in 2018. He scored three goals in three games at Euro 2020 but it was not enough for Poland to progress.
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When edging past Albania last month, Lewandowski’s teammates included those playing in Russia and MLS. There were colleagues from the second tier in Italy and England. The world’s best striker sharing a pitch with pals from Derby County and Barnsley.
This is the peculiar challenge of international football. At club level, in this globalised world, the best gravitate towards the best. But the international game still throws up these quirks.
So, how do you handle a world-class player in that team?
Image: Poland coach Paulo Sousa in conversation with star striker Robert Lewandowski
Paulo Sousa knew that this would define his success as Poland manager as soon as he was appointed to the role in January 2020. His relationship with Lewandowski would be key.
It is why he made a detour to Germany before even setting foot on Polish soil. At the height of the pandemic, restrictions meant that the pair had to meet at a hotel nearby Munich airport, where they had a lengthy conversation, sharing ideas about the game.
“That first meeting was close to four hours,” Sousa tells Sky Sports.
“It was vital and it was amazing.”
In Sousa’s mind was a book that he had read years earlier when the Portuguese had been in Italy in charge of Fiorentina. The book was by Phil Jackson, the former Chicago Bulls coach who won everything there was to win with Michael Jordan.
“Someone gave it to me and it had a big impact on me.”
Jordan was already the best basketball player in the world when Jackson was promoted to head coach but the greatest achievements were still to come. They came not by improving Jordan’s numbers but bringing out other qualities in him to help the team succeed.
“If I was going to have any success realising my vision for the team, I knew my first challenge was to win over Michael Jordan,” Jackson explained in Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success.
Image: Phil Jackson was able to adapt Michael Jordan's thinking to bring team success
“He was the team leader, and other players would follow if he went along with the program. Michael and I had a good rapport, but I wasn’t certain how he would respond to the idea of giving up the ball and taking fewer shots.
“In a way, I was asking Michael to produce less. How much less, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps enough to prevent him from winning his fourth straight scoring title. Michael was more receptive than I thought he would be.
“We had a private meeting in my office, and I told him, ‘You have got to share the spotlight with your teammates because if you don’t, they won’t grow … As a result, you probably won’t be able to win another scoring title.’
“Michael’s reaction was surprisingly pragmatic, ‘Okay, you know me. I have always been a coachable player. Whatever you want to do, I am behind you.'”
Sousa sees parallels with Lewandowski.
“Reading about Jordan was a key moment for me,” he reveals. “The guy was already at the top but the challenge was to involve him in the process to make others develop their skills together. It was amazing and it was always in my mind with Robert.”
Image: Poland striker Robert Lewandowski is a deep thinker about the game
The initial conversation had been over the telephone, establishing that Lewandowski still had big ambitions with Poland. The desire was there. “I knew how important his role with the national team was to him. He still had the will to do something.”
But there was a frustration too, having had an uneasy relationship with some of his former coaches. A paucity of ambition to the play combined with sky high expectations on him as an individual made for an uncomfortable mix. “All the focus was on him,” says Sousa.
The mutual respect was there. Sousa had won the Champions League himself with Lewandowski’s former club Dortmund. The Portuguese has “invested a lot in communication and sports psychology” and wanted to bring out a new side to the striker.
“The first step was to know him, to understand him,” he explains.
“There is a way of asking questions, driving players to open up. We understood the frustration that he was feeling. We started to involve him more in the process.”
Some of the moments of magic from Robert Lewandowski’s Bundesliga career
What Sousa soon found, perhaps unsurprisingly given that Lewandowski has turned himself into one of the world’s best players through will as well as skill, is that he has a keen mind.
“He is very demanding, always asking questions. He has his own ideas about football and wants to know everything about our game model, our strategy for specific matches, why we decide to pick certain players over others and when we choose to adapt the dynamics.
“How we work, we divide the game into five moments. Our defensive organisation, our attacking organisation, set pieces, and what happens in transition when we win the ball and when we lose the ball. We have patterns as a team, this is our identity.
“But while our idea is to be very aggressive and win the ball back as quickly as possible, we will have a different strategy for every game, which means inputting certain dynamics.
“Robert always listens intently when we have these tactical discussions with the team before matches and we are doing the analysis of ourselves and of our opponents.
“He is very intelligent and he picks up these ideas very quickly.”
That intelligence to adapt to the situation has underscored Lewandowski’s growth as a player. He was no teenage superstar. In fact, he was still playing for Lech Poznan in his homeland as he approached his 22nd birthday and took time to settle at Dortmund.
He worked at his game and found the solutions through hard work and determination. “You can see that it is not just technique with him,” says Sousa. “It is the feeling that he has in every moment, all of his movements, and the timing of those movements.”
At Bayern, he is perfectly in synch with the forward runs of Thomas Muller. He has learned to anticipate when his wingers will shoot – requiring him to close down the goalkeeper looking for the rebound – and when they will cross to the near post or the far.
With Poland, the ball will not always come so quickly or so accurately.
Lewandowski has had to adapt his movements.
“This is what we made him realise,” Sousa explains. “The way he sees the game in each moment, it is different to the others, especially the timing of his decisions, the analysis, he needs to adapt to the timing of the others and understand that.
“The timing that he has with his players at Bayern Munich is not going to be the same for the national team. An intelligent player like him, it is important to understand the others.
“He has to make sure that his decisions suit the team.
“That intelligence requires a lot of concentration.”
Image: Paulo Sousa tries to involve Robert Lewandowski in his decision-making
If that sounds like this is all about Lewandowski adjusting to the level of inferior teammates, that is not the whole story. In other respects, this is about him dragging others along with him. He is the perfect example for any players seeking to maximise their potential.
His wife Anna is a famed nutritionist, a world-class karate expert with a degree in physical education. She has helped transform Lewandowski’s diet, cutting out sugar and cow’s milk. He made headlines when it was revealed he eats meals backwards, starting with dessert.
While it might sound odd, it is indicative of his dedication.
“It is only when you work with him on a daily basis that you understand his mindset regarding football and his life. He is always demanding of himself and has changed lots of things in his life to become more consistent, physically, technically and tactically.
“This is something that he can also provide to his teammates with his experience of his own development. In doing that, he has the chance to have much more players up to his level.
“They can learn everything from him.”
The signs are good. Poland won that game in Albania, a crucial victory that takes them a step closer to securing at least a playoff place in their bid to reach the World Cup.
It followed another win – by five goals against San Marino. Lewandowski played in both, but did not score. His own numbers are down but Poland are outscoring England in Group I.
Poland are not the Chicago Bulls. But perhaps the team is growing.
“With Robert, it has been a beautiful process, for himself and for the national team,” says Sousa. “We have tried to guide him to get the same energy as his teammates and from there we could build it up into something special.”
If so, it could be the story of how the world’s best player became even better.
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