Nutty professor Lewandowski still stretching out to new frontiers

Bayern Munich striker has transformed himself into an all-weather phenomenon

One of Robert Lewandowski's many quirks is that at mealtimes he insists on eating his dessert first. Then the starter. Finally, the main course. It is a habit that has drawn more than a few curious looks from his Bayern Munich team-mates, yet one derived not from superstition but his wife Anna, a nutrition expert.

Sweet foods – the theory goes – digest quicker, and so by metabolising them first, he avoids mixing them in his stomach with the protein and carbohydrates to come. Another: after consulting a sleep therapist, he only sleeps on his left side, in order to preserve his stronger right leg.

To hone the fierce concentration demanded of an elite striker, he performs computerised brain-training exercises and eschews video games in favour of books.

Even his superstitions, like putting on his left boot first, have been fully thought out: resulting from a conversation with a psychologist in which he was encouraged to drill his pre-match routine into an instinctive sequence.


Perhaps it helps to think of Lewandowski as a sort of nutty professor, concocting an ever-more daring series of scientific experiments in an attempt to discover the outer limits of himself. Certainly as he goes into Sunday's Champions League final there is a sense of new frontiers being breached, boundaries being pushed: 55 goals in 46 games this season, an incredible injury record that has never seen him miss more than three games in a row since arriving in the Bundesliga a decade ago. Remarkably, at the age of 32, Lewandowski exudes the aura of a man still making up his own reality as he goes along.

This is not a new trait, but one that has defined him since he emerged out of Warsaw youth football in the mid-2000s: shy, slight and yet with a devouring fixation on his own path to glory.

"When we went on vacation, he was reading books on breathing," remembers Ivan Djurdjevic, a former team-mate at Lech Poznan. "Even then, it was obvious that he was different, that he wanted something more from this world."

Unlike Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, the other towering forwards of his era, Lewandowski was not born with freakish natural gifts. He didn't come from a country with a distinguished footballing lineage. He didn't even represent Poland at youth level until the under-19s. He is by his own admission introverted, and occasionally beset by self-doubt. "When I left Poland," he once said, "I had a lot of complexes, as every Polish man probably does: that I come from Poland and am worse than everyone else."

Even at Bayern, where he has now scored 246 goals and won six successive Bundesliga titles, you get the sense he is respected rather than loved: a perfectly-oiled machine rather than their own flesh and blood. For all his stunning numbers, the team is not built around him, either tactically or temperamentally, as it is around Messi or Ronaldo. All the same, with Bayern on the point of their first Champions League triumph since 2013, this finally feels like Lewandowski’s time: the culmination of an intense and highly personal project.

Over the years, Lewandowski's lust for self-improvement would morph into something close to obsession. At Borussia Dortmund he consciously distanced himself from his Polish team-mates Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek, because he felt it would encourage him to learn German.

At Bayern, determined to supplant Thomas Müller as the first-choice penalty-taker, he would conspicuously practise his spot-kicks after training in an attempt to impress Pep Guardiola (who eventually relented halfway through his final season at the club). “The most professional player I’ve ever met,” was Guardiola’s verdict. “He thinks about the right food, sleep and training 24 hours a day.”

Meanwhile, exposure to the world’s best coaches has allowed him to refine his gift. The deadly finishing and supreme anticipation were always there, but the rest would have to be bolted on.

Jürgen Klopp at Dortmund added expression to his game, initially playing Lewandowski as a No 10 against his wishes and encouraging him to help build attacks, not just finish them. Guardiola gave him an unsurpassable tactical education, teaching him how to time and taper his runs so he could pull defences apart without touching a ball. Carlo Ancelotti taught him how to relax. Jupp Heynckes taught him neatness and discipline.

Now, under the high-intensity, low-pressure tutelage of Hansi Flick, Lewandowski seems to have taken another leap. His header in the 3-0 victory over Lyon on Wednesday night was his 15th Champions League goal of the season, bringing him within two of Ronaldo's record for a single campaign.

Yet a better gauge of his progress is the 33 passes he completed, 20 of which came in the final third. By way of contrast, take his last semi-final appearance – a 2-2 draw against Real Madrid in 2018 that saw Bayern eliminated. That night at the Bernabéu, despite Bayern dominating possession, he completed just 13 passes, four of them in the final third.

Somehow, Lewandowski has transformed himself into an all-weather attacking phenomenon, equally comfortable overloading the flanks, dropping into midfield or making sacrificial runs into the channels as he is scoring in industrial quantities.

All of which gives the impression of a player sharpening to a point, finally shedding his last few inhibitions, extinguishing those few remaining doubts. This has been perhaps the defining note of Lewandowski’s career to date: the sense that however many goals he accumulates against the Colognes and Augsburgs of this world, however many Bundesliga titles he stacks up, there has always remained a certain note of unfulfilment, a whiff of the flat-track bully that he has never quite been able to cast aside.

"A winter player," scoffed the Süddeutsche Zeitung a couple of years ago. "I see too little of him in these [big] games," Oliver Kahn, the Bayern board member and former goalkeeper, agreed. "He is not doing justice to his status in the game."

Naturally, there has always been a slight element of unfairness to this. A record of 24 goals in 37 Champions League knockout games hardly suggests he goes missing when the stakes are at their highest.

In part, you wonder if Lewandowski is a victim of his superhuman everyday form, which leaves him vulnerable to criticism when his output is merely human.

You wonder, too, if he is being held culpable for the wider sense of waste at Bayern over the past few seasons, the opportunities spurned, the big games gone begging, those serial knockout failures against Barcelona in 2015, Atlético Madrid in 2016, Real in 2017 and 2018.

Now, though, the road lies clear. For all the focus on how Bayern’s high line will cope with PSG’s front three, the battle at the other end will be just as pivotal: a Paris defence that for all its organisation and discipline has been exposed in the past by a fierce counterpress.

For Lewandowski, whose one previous final with Dortmund ended in defeat to Bayern in 2013, it is the chance to crown a stellar career with the seal of greatness. As he does with his meals, Lewandowski may just have saved his best for last. – Guardian