Tactical Insights

Barcelona’s Lewandowski dilemma – and why planning without him is risky

Barcelona’s first game since it was confirmed Xavi would stay on as manager did not have much of the new flamboyant style he said he hoped to establish — but we did see a Robert Lewandowski show.

The 35-year-old made the difference in an important win against Valencia, scoring a second-half hat-trick that helped diminish a bigger problem: the looming possibility of missing out on second place in La Liga and the prize money that would bring.

Valencia reached the break 2-1 up after two appalling defensive mistakes from Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Ronald Araujo. But just before half-time came the turning point: visiting goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili was sent off, leaving his team exposed for the whole second half, and that was too much for Ruben Baraja’s team to cope with.

Barcelona dominated as you would expect, but they still struggled to find their way in attack — a familiar story this season. Lewandowski’s goals all came from dead-ball situations: two corners and an excellent free kick from the edge of the box. The way the evening started, such an outcome was looking far from likely.



Xavi’s Barcelona U-turn – the dramatic story behind his decision to stay

As kick-off approached on Monday night, a rumour began to go around the Montjuic press box that Lewandowski was not going to start. Xavi’s group had been practising in training with Ferran Torres up front, and many believed he would take Lewandowski’s place, just a week after he was taken off in El Clasico.

The Polish striker started, with Torres on the bench, putting an end to that speculation — but his future does present a dilemma for Barcelona.

Lewandowski speaks with Yamal after his third goal last night (Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Lewandowski is one of the household names in this Barcelona squad, and a big reason for his signing was the commercial value he would add as a so-called ‘franchise player’, as well as the idea of him acting as an experienced role model for a young squad.

But almost two years on from his €50million ($42.6m; $53.4m at current rates) move from Bayern Munich, Lewandowski is not considered an untouchable member of the Barcelona squad. Only Lamine Yamal, Pau Cubarsi and Gavi can surely be considered to have that status. With Barcelona expected to push for some big sales this summer, several club figures believe it would make sense to move him on.

After last night’s hat-trick, Lewandowski has 16 La Liga goals this season — 23 in all competitions — as well as eight assists. With four league games still to play, his numbers are slightly below the previous campaign, when he registered 33 goals and eight assists in all competitions.

He is still in contention to become La Liga’s top scorer this term — Girona’s Artem Dovbyk leads with 19 goals — but the problem with Lewandowski and Barcelona is more related to his fit with the team.

Coaching staff sources — who, like all those cited in the article, wanted to speak anonymously to protect their positions — say they have had frustrations all season over Lewandowski’s struggles in duels with defenders, his link-up play, as well as him not being clinical enough at times. Xavi has subbed him on five occasions with Barca not in a winning position. Lewandowski has also been pictured having tense verbal exchanges with youngsters such as Yamal when he has felt frustrated over not getting enough service.

“I am not going to speak about anyone’s future as I don’t think it’s helpful for us,” Xavi said after the Valencia game. “I am happy with Robert. The work he does for the team is extraordinary, an outstanding footballer and an example for the dressing room on the way he conducts himself. That’s why he scored a hat-trick. I am delighted for him.”

But above any football reasons, there is also the financial dimension.

Lewandowski’s contract is not a great one for Barcelona’s books. He signed a four-year deal with the club back in 2022 (the final year is dependent on him playing at least 50 per cent of games in the previous season).

From next season, he is expected to become the club’s highest-paid player, with a salary of €16million a year after taxes, according to the Spanish media outlet Cadena SER. His departure would represent a significant saving for a club that needs to make them. Lewandowski himself, however, has not entertained the idea.

“Leaving Barca this summer is definitely not possible, it’s not a topic,” he said in an interview with the German newspaper Bild that was published on Monday.

“I physically feel good. This is the case for at least two more years. When I’m physically no longer at a top level, I’d start thinking.”

Lewandowski now has 16 La Liga goals this season (Manuel Queimadelos/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Sources from the player’s camp say Lewandowski is extremely happy with life in Barcelona, that he is settled in his house near the beach at Castelldefels, and that he is even considering staying there after he does eventually retire. They refute media reports that have linked him with a potential move to Saudi Arabia, and say he plans to retire in Europe.

Another defining factor is that Barcelona simply do not have strength in depth in his position, nor can they realistically expect to sign a replacement who could match Lewandowski’s quality.

Torres would be playing out of position as a striker and has never really shown signs of the goalscoring form Barca would expect from a leading front man. Then there is Vitor Roque.

Barcelona signed the 19-year-old from Athletico Paranaense in a January deal worth €30million plus a further €31m in potential add-ons. He landed as one of Brazil’s biggest prospects, but his adaptation process has not followed an easy path.

Roque arrived out of form and needed time to step up and reach his team-mates’ fitness levels. Now he is there, but he has failed to impress Xavi. He has only played in 282 minutes over 11 La Liga matches and has been an unused substitute in Barca’s past three games.



Barcelona have given Vitor Roque the big sell – but what he really needs is time

In many ways, this can all be normal for a teenager who leaves his country and needs time to adjust to life at one of the most-scrutinised clubs in world football. One of the main reasons for his early arrival in January was to help this process: to start preparing for life after Lewandowski. But he is not ready for it yet.

Selling Lewandowski and having Torres and Roque as their first-team strikers looks like a risk Barca can’t take. And signing a new striker of quality, given the financial struggles the club has and the valuation such a player would have, is an impossible dream.

All this might turn the Lewandowski dilemma, barring a summer surprise, into a forced necessity for Xavi’s team.

(Top photo: Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

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