Normally, the world is compromise and soccer is no different. Pundits and fans write glowingly about big and strong number nines, but “for a big man” usually follows the compliments. He is so graceful and athletic…for a big man. He has pretty good dribbling skills…for a big man. The underlying message is that big men can be useful in soccer, but move with the subtlety and grace of a doubledecker bus. They admirably win aerial duels, but any part of the body below the forehead is next to useless.
Sometimes, these stereotypes have a basis in truth. Other times, though, nature sends us a genuine freak, a genetic oddity, but not the kind to mock and/or fear. Robert Lewandowski is one of those freaks, which is why his game defies all convention.
If you were in a schoolyard and picking a basketball or volleyball team, Lewandowksi would be your first pick. Even among the super tall centerbacks in today’s game, he lurks over them like Everest upon K2. His poor mother would have been better off burying cookies than trying to hide them on top of the refrigerator from him as a child. Still, he’s not just a Ruud Van Nistelrooy clone that feasts of far post headers and crosses.
To the contrary, Lewandowski can (and does) score every kind of goal imaginable. Look at these five goals he scored for Borussia Dortmund:
A rifled shot off a wicked half-volley. A carefully struck free-kick that bends and dips. A great first touch, wicked turn, fake shot, and then a chip over the keeper. An aggressive burst of dribbling past three defenders followed by a drilled shot to the far post. Each of these goals is a work of art, a combination of exceptional skill and athleticism. None of them rely on Lewandowski’s size or frame, although both attributes certainly help.
While at Dortmund, Lewandowski formed a lethal strike partnership with Mario Goetze. A glance at their respective heights leads to a snap judgment: thunder and lightning. One envisions Robert battling with two centerbacks while the sprightly Goetze runs amok. However, a look at highlights shows the opposite: “Lewa” often dropped deep to pick up the ball and then dinked passes to Gotze into the 18 yard box. Lewa also executed amazing give-and-gos with Shinji Kagawa, Nuri Sahin, and Marco Reus.
Of course, you can’t talk about Lewa’s time at Dortmund without mentioning his obra maestra, the first leg of a Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid. In the span of forty-five minutes, he made a worldclass centerback (Pepe) look like a rank amateur.
The second and third goals show the intelligence, power and grace of Lewa in a nutshell: he reacts first to broken plays and picks up mishit passes/shots, deftly dribbles to a shooting angle, and drills a shot to the side of the keeper, all in a matter of seconds. His first goal came from a cross, and was merely a sign of the things to come at Bayern Munich under Pep Guardiola.
It’s no secret that Lew and Thomas Muller are opposites: while Robert uses his frame to often battle with centerbacks and rifles his shots with power, Muller plays the part of the phantom striker, the ghost who appears from nowhere to caress a shot to the far post. Muller’s effortless and intangible qualities complement Lewandowski’s indefatigable and material contributions to the team both on and off the ball. They also seldom stand in the same place or make the same run, equally dividing the terrain and the spoils.
Pep’s cross-first Bayern and the smart movement of Muller both played a hand in Robert’s five-goal orgy versus Wolfsburg.
If a good striker finishes clear cut chances, then a great striker, like an alchemist, can create gold from nothing. What’s most astonishing about Robert’s five goals in nine minutes is that no other striker in the world would probably even attempt half of those shots. And that’s the last piece of the puzzle for Robert: his confidence. He can miss chance after chance (which hardly happens), and still demand the ball in the 18 yard box. When all else fails, you can still whip a cross to his gloriously elevated forehead. Just ask Ireland.
A bear that moves with the grace of an antelope. An elephant that jumps higher than a kangaroo. Lewandowski offers a shining example of what happens when ungodly athleticism meets sheer footballing class. Enjoy watching him while you can: players like this only come once a generation.
Elliott writes about soccer at Futfanatico.com. He is the author of An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, available on iTunes.