MSR player of the month of February: Robert Lewandowski
This is what Erling Haaland, undoubtedly one of the most talented strikers currently in professional football, said about Robert Lewandowski in February. He went on to say, “When I score a goal, I say to myself, ‘Okay, now I’m one goal closer to him’. But then he just scores another hat-trick like it’s nothing”. Side note: Lewandowski then went on to score a hat-trick in the match against Borussia Dortmund – Haaland scored twice.
By his standards, Lewandowski had a poor start to the month of February. On matchday 20, Rune Jarstein became only the second goalkeeper in the Bundesliga (after Manuel Neuer) to save a penalty from Lewandowski in Bayern’s match against Hertha. The match against Hertha represents an absolute rarity for another reason as well: It was one of only four games in the current Bundesliga campaign in which Lewandowski did not score.
But already the following week, Lewandowski showed one of his greatest strengths: He plays and scores with a breathtaking consistency, which even the odd exception cannot dilute. The mental anchor “Lewandowski not scoring = highly unusual” alone illustrates how consistently he scores goals. Goalless games are no exception for strikers, quite the contrary. Let us take a look at the four Bundesliga attackers who scored most often in the 2020/21 season behind Lewandowski at the time of writing:
Haaland: 19 games, 19 goals, 5 assists, 84 min per goal, 9x goalless
Silva: 22 games, 19 goals, 5 assists, 100 min per goal, 8x goalless
Weghorst: 24 games, 15 goals, 4 assists, 137 min per goal, 11x goalless
Kramaric: 19 games, 14 goals, 4 assists, 115 min per goal, 10x goalless
In comparison, Lewandowski’s stats: 23 games, 31 goals, 6 assists, 63 min per goal, 4x goalless. Please read again.
This statistic makes for extraordinary reading. But What is really extraordinary about it is that the numbers leave many observers almost cold. A sober “so what” is probably going through the heads of many readers right now, since Lewandowski has been scoring more than 20 goals per season for Bayern without exception for years. This is the seventh season in a row in which he has scored more than 20 goals, and the fourth in the last seven in which he has broken the 30-goal threshold.
Having been named player of the month three times between August and October last year, it is time to recognize his outstanding performances once again. His consistently high scoring rate and his absolute reliability in terms of appearances and goals scored have set a very high standard for the evaluation of his performances as mental anchors in our minds.
Mental anchors can cause a systematic distortion of a judgement or decision. In the case of the assessment of Lewandowski’s on pitch performance, this means: the anchor (the consistently high scoring rate per game) is the starting point for a conscious train of thought (which player performed how well in the period in question) and subsequently results in a corresponding decision or judgement. Since Lewandowski’s performances are at such a consistently high level (December: 4 games, 5 goals; January: 6 games, 7 goals; February: 4 games, 4 goals), the bar in the mind is set so high that such exceptional performances are considered the norm. This fact seems absurd, which is why with this article we would like to attempt to readjust the anchor – precisely because Lewandowski’s remarkable performances in the month of February (4 goals in 4 games) feel so normal.
A look at Lewandowski’s expected goals (xG) values also shows how clinical a scorer he is. These values are calculated on the basis of how well other players succeeded at scoring from a similar position in a similar manner in thousands of comparable situations before.
According to StatsBomb, Lewandowski has 21.5 expected goals. Compared to his 31 actual goals so far this season, does this mean that the 32-year-old is overperforming? That would be one interpretation. The more likely conclusion, however, is that he simply brings considerably more quality to the table than the players whose goal scoring success rate provides the basis for this calculation. Lewandowski is in the form of his life, and right now he is simply able to score more often than one in ten attempts even if the corresponding xG probability estimates the success rate of the shot at 10% – football sometimes just defies mathematics.
Behind the remarkable numbers is a striker who brings the complete package. First and foremost are Lewandowski’s finishing skills with both his feet and his head. He looks to finish from all possible and impossible positions and is therefore difficult for his opponents to calculate. Another reason for this is that he can act in different roles. He functions purely as a penalty area striker, but he also has the ability to pick up balls in midfield and participate in his team’s build-up in the final third.
Then there is the psychological component. Lewandowski radiates a hunger for goals that borders on obsession. He wants to be part of the game and not just wait for the ball, actively creates free spaces to receive the ball himself if possible, or create spaces for his teammates. The special thing about him is that he is able to radiate a will to win and a hunger for goals, to have a positive effect on his teammates, and also play his game patiently at the same time. He is experienced enough to wait for the right moment to strike. His ability to focus is crucial in this. Lewandowski is able to maintain his level of attention over a long period of time and/or focus at the right moment.
The only remaining question this season is: Will Lewandowski break the record set by FC Bayern goal scorer legend Gerd Müller, who managed to strike 40 times in the 1971/72 season? In the direct comparison after 24 match days, he is five goals ahead of the “Bomber”, who had 26 goals at the time. To illustrate the dimensions of this achievement once again: Lewandowski currently scores 1.42 times per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga. If he can play the remaining ten games and maintain his average, he would end the season at 45 (!) goals. Only load management considerations, an injury or a suspension for too many yellow cards could stand in his way. Last season, the attacker missed one game in the home stretch due to a fifth yellow card. He currently has three yellow cards. Thus, the race between Gerd Müller and Robert Lewandowski is set to remain exciting till the very end. Regardless of whether he will break the record, however, it is clear that this striker is one of the best the record champions have ever had. Or, to quote Haaland, “the guy is crazy, he’s just crazy.”