Because he’s the second-most expensive transfer for a footballer over the age of 33, and because Barcelona are essentially mortgaging their future to crash-build a competitive squad, the questions so far have focused on: Is Robert Lewandowski capable of giving the Blaugrana value for their money?
The doubters have also carped: Is the ex-Bayern Munich man going to live up to such a vast investment (a reported €45 million transfer fee plus wages over a four-year contract)? And, will he adapt to Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez’s brand of football while scoring those killer goals the squad has so sorely lacked over the past two seasons?
It’s not that these questions are completely out of place, but I think there’s another, extremely important one which has been ignored: Are Barca ready for Lewandowski?
There’s a host of reasons to ask this — lots of key tests the club, rather than exclusively the player, will have to pass for this high-budget summer marriage to flourish.
In joining Barcelona, Lewandowski accepted a genuinely remarkable risk, given his status and the quality of club he left, as well as the others (Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea) reportedly interested in him. At the absolute outside, Barcelona have until Sept. 1 to meet LaLiga’s Financial Fair Play rules by vastly reducing their salary mass in order to register Lewandowski, Raphinha, Franck Kessie, Andreas Christensen, Pablo Torre, Sergi Roberto and Ousmane Dembele.
That’s an enormous task. But, infinitely more pressing is the fact that club president Joan Laporta and his transfer team have slightly more than two weeks to get at least a couple of the key signings (Lewandowski and Raphinha at the head of the queue) fully registered and ready to play in the season opener against Rayo Vallecano at Camp Nou on Aug. 13.
Think about the row, think about the embarrassment if they can’t manage that. You can bet your bottom dollar that the question of “Will you be in financial shape to register my client?” played a huge part in negotiations, and that there will be stringent penalty clauses inserted in Lewandowski’s deal if Barça fail to meet LaLiga rules in time to get him registered.
But even though Lewandowski was evidently wowed by both Laporta and Xavi in choosing Barcelona, and during the process of making it ultra-clear to Bayern that they could stop their efforts to persuade him to stay, this is an incredible situation.
Unprecedented in my opinion. World class, about to turn 34 in August, desired by top clubs around Europe yet, when making his debut in a 1-0 Clásico win over Real Madrid in a Las Vegas friendly, Lewandowski wasn’t even aware of whether his move will be made fully official in time for the new season.
The club has put in such effort on transfers, salary reduction and revenue generation (with the Spotify sponsorship included, the total is over €800m since spring) that it feels inconceivable their new superstar, or the other notable signings, are at risk of not being registered to play in LaLiga until the January window.
Nevertheless: the proof is in the pudding. For example, even though the cause wasn’t financial you can bet everything you own that when Dani Alves re-signed for Barça last January, he was unaware that they wouldn’t register him to play in their UEFA Europa League campaign. Might one of this summer’s signings have a nasty shock awaiting — sidelined at the club unable to play league football?
Even if it’s a minor risk, Lewandowski has staked a huge amount by agreeing to sign for a club that weren’t able to immediately confirm his eligibility with the authorities who govern Spain’s league. Barcelona have made him promises, he’s accepted in good faith — but the clock is ticking.
The next vital areas where Barcelona need to quickly demonstrate to this ultra-demanding athlete that they’re at his level of competence: training, fitness, injury prevention, recuperation, plus when he, and others, need to be rotated.
Training sessions, in theory, shouldn’t be the problem. Xavi and Lewandowski share a vision of what elite football should be like. The Catalan’s impact on the daily workouts once he took over from Ronald Koeman last November was seismically good and Lewandowski is, once again, going to have hugely talented footballers left, right and centre.
But wider daily life at Barcelona is now about to be microscopically examined by their new centre-forward. Xavi and backroom staff have tried to purge all the horrible failings they inherited. But this, remember, is a club that was in a terrible mess when it comes to precisely the standards which Lewandowski, and probably any long-term Bayern star, considers basic.
When Xavi took over he found a lackadaisical attitude to timekeeping, diet and intensity of work. Moreover, he thoroughly disapproved of the way the medical side of the first-team squad operated and, in fairness, there were plenty of desperately poor examples. Dembele’s stratospherically bad sequence of injuries, especially given how few similar problems he’d suffered at Borussia Dortmund, would be the worst.
But what about the failure of Ansu Fati‘s meniscus operations, and recuperations, plus his hamstring problems, which have cost the prodigious goal scorer over 80 matches, injured, in less than two years? The 2021-22 season was also dreadfully impacted by Pedri‘s long absences — a factor of being overplayed by both Barcelona and Spain at a very tender age. But no one — Camp Nou football staff, medics, physios or fitness coaches — coped with how to manage having a phenomenon on their books. Nor have Barcelona’s medics been able to keep Samuel Umtiti in competitive shape.
Since taking over, Xavi has insisted on drastic changes, sackings and hirings, in all three areas — physiotherapy, fitness preparation and, above all, with the rehiring of the notably excellent Dr. Ricard Pruna. However, all these professionals are now going be put to the test — microscopically. Lewandowski, don’t forget, is a fitness and well-being hawk. Should he find standards or attitudes at Barcelona’s Joan Gamper training ground below either what he’s been living with at Bayern, or what he believes in personally, there will immediately be tension.
It’s widely known that his wife, Anna, dictates the player’s general diet and that this process has functioned spectacularly well (even if he eats his sweet before his main course or salad.) In addition, Lewandowski has even employed a sleep therapist to maximise his potential, previously stating that he sleeps on his left side to preserve his right foot.
Testimonials to the 33-year-old’s attitude and intensity of preparation come from the legendary striker and longtime Bayern spiritual leader Karl-Heinz Rummenigge: “In our dressing room nobody has as impressive a body as Robert.”
Or, if you like, listen to Jupp Heynckes, treble-winning manager at Bayern: “The thing about Robert which most impresses me is his professionalism, his ambition, his passion and the physical shape he’s in.”
While managing Bayern, Pep Guardiola limited himself to simply calling Lewandowski “one of the most professional players I’ve ever worked with.”
It’s possible that you viewed Lewandowski only as a hungry, determined, prolific striker. It’s possible that you thought being a football “manager” really pertained only to the formation used, the tactics, coping with the media, winning or losing trophies. But that’s not it. The bedrock is the daily work. Who’s in the power seat? You or the players? Believe me, this can be a very threatening seesaw relationship. If there are 100%, bona-fide world-class winners and fighters in your group — have you got them convinced? Almost as important: are your staff convincing those hawkish players with every word, every deed, with their attitudes, decisions, plans, communication skills?
This, and so much more, will be the fuel of whether Lewandowski is satisfied, even inspired by his new environment, and whether he ignites. Barça have signed a guy who has played in only two Champions League finals, won one and not scored in either. Yet he is a phenomenon in the competition — only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have outscored him and his ratio, 86 goals in 106 games, is bettered only by Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano.
Given that Lewandowski will turn 34 on the day of Barça’s second league match, he’s at Camp Nou principally for immediate impact in the vastly lucrative Champions League (where Barça want to earn close to €400m in the next three seasons) even more than in LaLiga. They crave his goal assurance in the one arena where they can make inroads into their extraordinary debt.
Xavi will, unquestionably, be tempted to rest the striker ahead of some key UCL matches — something that a player who has averaged a 95% appearance rate in all available club fixtures since 2010 isn’t used to and won’t like. Who wins that argument? Another test Lewandowski brings to Barça.
It’s all going to be fascinating to watch and there’s no question that, now Barça have invested so heavily in him, Lewandowski needs to deliver. But, I promise you, there’ll be some Camp Nou staff, and players, who haven’t experienced anything precisely like this guy before. They’d better be up to scratch.