One always thought that going past Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at the summit of individual achievement would require a different approach, and a different awarding criteria. No one could match their freakish numbers, and a new age would recognise something else – Luka Modric-esque artistry, or the sort of defensive mastery produced by peak Virgil van Dijk, for example.
The most remarkable aspect of Robert Lewandowski’s rise to the summit of the world game, then, is that he has done so by putting up cold, hard figures that compare with the two greatest of the past decade or so. If it is felt that the sport’s individual awards should be justified by team conquests – and February’s Club World Cup win meant Bayern became only the second club, after Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, to rack up a sextuple – then Lewandowski’s continually climbing standards at the age of 33 made a pretty compelling solo case for recognition.
On a purely individual level, beating Gerd Müller’s record for the most goals by a single player in a Bundesliga season was the high point. In early January, we knew it was on as he surpassed Müller’s Hinrunde record for the amount of goals scored in the first half of the Bundesliga campaign – Lewandowski had 21, compared to Müller’s 20 from 1968-69. Fast forward to May and his last goal of the season with virtually the last kick of the Bundesliga campaign, against Augsburg, saw him eclipse Müller’s tally of 40 from 1971-72 with his 41st, in the nick of time. It was wildly celebrated, and a magnificent moment that revealed just how much this meant to a publicly modest man.
In the era of Messi and Ronaldo we have become almost numb to statistical excellence. Yet Lewandowski has entered the same realm as those two, where new milestones are required to find a way to describe his brilliance, because we’ve run out of superlatives. There were so many during 2021 – the most consecutive games scoring in the Bundesliga, scoring in the most home games in a row, scoring in nine straight Champions League games in multiple seasons, with going past Klaus Fischer into second on the Bundesliga’s all-time list and taking Raúl’s third place in the Champions League goalscoring table dotted in-between.
The Müller season record really mattered, though. Partly because it was Müller, of course, and Lewandowski always showed his respect to the great man, revealing a T-shirt with Müller’s image on after equalling the record at Freiburg and spending time with Müller’s wife, Uschi, to let her know his admiration for her husband before his death in August.
It was partly, too, because of the sheer scale of Müller’s achievement nearly 50 years ago. If we are desensitised to big numbers at elite level these days, this never extended to Der Bomber’s season record and its status in Germany. Most German football fans and journalists simply thought it would never be bettered. Lewandowski’s achievement in doing so is rightly recognised as genuinely remarkable in the country that has been his home for more than a decade.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. That knee injury he sustained in Poland’s March win over Andorra (he scored twice before his night was curtailed, naturally) probably ended up wrecking his shot at the Ballon d’Or, keeping him out of both legs of the Champions League quarter-final with Paris Saint-Germain and making all the difference, as a Bayern side that were injury-hit but superior for much of tie were agonisingly eliminated on away goals. Injuries are a part of any tournament but the sheer insatiable drive of Lewandowski meant that the story of last year’s Champions League would not be complete without flagging his absence, when his fitness could have further garlanded Hansi Flick’s glorious spell in charge.
Now established on the podium in the competition’s all-time scoring chart behind the big two, Lewandowski’s current fettle – improving, rather than simply maintaining – and his total (82) suggests that he is more likely than not to become the third player to pass 100 Champions League goals, which one fancies his chances of managing at some stage next season if little changes. Even Müller’s Bundesliga record total of 365 – another presumed insurmountable – isn’t off the table at the current lick (he is on 296), should he resolve to finish his career in Munich.
Lewandowski’s all-round game remains formidable; he relishes physical combat with opposition defenders as much as he ever did – and is even better equipped for it these days, with significantly more muscle than when he arrived in Dortmund in 2010. As he ushered in December in time-honoured fashion by making his former club suffer in Der Klassiker (after that latest win on his return to Westfalen, he has scored 22 in 15 against his former employers in the Bundesliga alone – and has celebrated all of them), we were offered a reminder that there is no more dangerous Lewandowski than a defiant one. After a year in which he revealed himself as more like Messi or Ronaldo than we thought, he could be motivated to even greater heights in 2022 after this winter’s Ballon d’Or snub.