Vitor Roque can't arrive at Barcelona soon enough! Robert Lewandowski looks to be losing his goalscoring touch as he enters his twilight years

Comments (0)
Robert Lewandowski struggles GFX
The Polish striker's worrying start to the season has led to the Spanish champions looking pretty toothless in attack in the early weeks of the season

Robert Lewandowski's stat line in Barcelona's 2-0 win over Cadiz on Sunday wasn't horrific. Although he failed to score, the striker shot five times, put one on target and missed one 'big chance.' He also grabbed himself an assist. Worryingly, though, when Barca needed a goal to salvage what seemed to be heading towards their second 0-0 draw in two games to start the season, Lewandowski went quiet. He was rarely in the box, and what few half-chances he had, he squandered.

The burden, instead, fell on Pedri and Ferran Torres to grab the goals, the star striker mostly a spectator as the Blaugrana squeaked out a win. It's the continuation of a worrying trend for Lewandowski. He turned 35 on Monday, and has shown signs that he might be slowing down with age. He has only scored 10 league goals this calendar year, and is unlikely to match the 34 he managed in 2022. The eye test is equally unkind, with Lewandowski looking a languid presence on the ball and off it. Suddenly, one of the game's greats looks old.

This is all a problem for a Barca side that will sink without production from its star man. The Blaugrana don't have a reliable goalscorer outside of Lewandowski. The departure of Ousmane Dembele — and his 12 goal contributions last year — has only increased the pressure. And although help is on the way from exciting but inexperienced Brazilian teenager Vitor Roque in January, Lewandowski needs to rediscover his best form or Barca may well fall out of title contention early.

  1. What's going wrong?

    What's going wrong?

    This is hardly a new issue for Lewandowski. He failed to score in his last two games of the 2022-23 La Liga campaign and saw his form fall off a cliff after the Qatar World Cup.

    Before the tournament, Lewandowski was arguably the best player in La Liga. He scored 12 goals in his first 10 games for Barca, and by the break had 18 in 19 in the league. A dive into the minutia was even more impressive. The striker was averaging over a goal per 90 minutes, out-performing his xG and creating a high volume of chances. His €50 million (£42m/$51m) price tag, despite his age, seemed like a bargain.

    The World Cup, though, seemed to impact some of the best players in Europe — especially strikers. And Lewandowski was one of them. After Poland's last-16 exit, his numbers plummeted. He scored 15 times in all competitions between January and June, took fewer shots on goal, and saw his xG take a hit, too. A strong week to sew up the title — four goals in three fixtures — saved face, but Lewandowski was clearly struggling.

    This season, albeit through only two games, the issues are much the same. Lewandowski is yet to find the net, has only put two shots on target, and is averaging less than 0.5 expected goals per game. The forward is also dropping far deeper than in season's past, failing to get into the key positions that make him such a deadly No.9. It's something his manager has noticed.

    “He has two or three clear opportunities. He has to have more patience and to not get out of position to where it doesn’t get to him," Xavi pointed out after Lewandowski's goalless return at the weekend.

  2. Dembele's departure
    Getty Images

    Dembele's departure

    His lack of goals cannot entirely be pinned on Lewandowski, though. Indeed, top No.9s need service, and can only be at their best when the right players are getting them the ball at the right time.

    For half of last season, Dembele made things happen for Lewandowski. The winger was a regular provider for the striker, and the two linked up effectively to help carry the goalscoring burden. Dembele didn't always provide the assist himself, but his ability to disrupt opened up the kind of spaces that Lewandowski thrived in.

    It is of little surprise, then, that Lewandowski's drop in form coincided with Dembele's long-term injury. The France international missed nearly four months with a muscle problem, during which time Lewandowski went through the two longest goal droughts of his Barca career. Raphinha made for an agreeable deputy, but lacked the creative chops to feed Lewandowski consistently.

    Dembele has since departed for Paris Saint-Germain, further limiting the Pole's chances. Add the recent suspension of Raphinha to the mix after he picked up a reckless red card against Getafe, and the star striker will be further starved of service.

  3. Potential solutions
    Getty Images

    Potential solutions

    Lewandowski is a player who has never really experienced a goal drought in his impressive career. Prior to last season's slump, he hadn't gone more than three games without scoring since 2018. He has now done that twice in the last five months. If he fails to score on Sunday against Villarreal, he will have experienced his longest slump since 2016, and most significant goalless league spell since 2010 — when he was still a sporadic starter for Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund.

    For most strikers, the solution is to shoot their way out of it. Such a method worked for him last season, when a strong week in early May ended a disappointing spell. During that stretch, Lewandowski was simply given more chances. That instinctive skill, it appears, did not simply leave him.

    His manager, meanwhile, has called on him to get in better positions: "He has received the ball inside and on the wings. The game required positioning. He needs a goal, just like all the strikers."

    Maybe it's not quite that simple, Barcelona will often face low blocks from disciplined La Liga defences. They cannot usually be played through, nor will there be spaces for Lewandowski to move into. Perhaps, then, a change of system is necessary.

    Xavi has configured this Barcelona side to be a tight defensive unit, while employing the trendy box midfield that has become prevalent in European football over the past two years. The Barca set-up, though, only uses one winger. If a second was introduced, then there would, presumably, be more opportunities for Lewandowski. But systems are about balance. Add an extra attacking player, and Barca's signature defensive stability could take a hit. Lewandowski, then, might simply have to accept that he will have fewer goalscoring opportunities, and instead make more of those he gets.

  4. What Vitor Roque offers
    Getty Images

    What Vitor Roque offers

    One of the key, perhaps unspoken, issues here is Lewandowski's lack of rest. The striker has never really been benched. The winter break in the Bundesliga, in fact, was perfect, allowing for a mid-season rest when other leagues were running their players into the ground.

    La Liga, in theory, offers a similar interval. However, the fixture congestion associated with Champions League football and cup runs doesn't leave much time for recuperation. Throw in Barca's glaring lack of depth through the middle — Ferran Torres isn't the kind of striker they need — and Lewandowski is being overworked.

    It's a good thing, then, that reinforcements are soon to arrive. Vitor Roque is the latest in the stream of Brazilian talents to trickle into the top levels of European football, and he profiles as a particularly good one, too. Dubbed the next Ronaldo Nazario, Roque has the same pace and power that made 'R9' so impactful at such a young age. There are some caveats here, namely the fact that Ronaldo is comfortably one of the best strikers to ever play football — Roque can't live up to that.

    But if it's a back-up that Barca want, Roque will provide it. The 18-year-old has bagged 18 goals for Athletico Paranaense in 2023, and looks poised to force himself into the Brazil national team side in the process.

    Relying on teenagers is risky business, especially ones that haven't played in Europe before. Still, Xavi has never had a problem letting youth assert themselves. Come January 2024 - Roque's arrival date after Barca agreed a €40m (£34m/$44m) deal for him in July - the Blaugrana will certainly have more options.

  5. How much longer can Lewandowski go on?

    How much longer can Lewandowski go on?

    Barca might just have timed the Roque switch perfectly, too. Lewandowski is under contract until the end of the 2025 season, with an option to stay for one more year — albeit on a reduced salary. By that time, should he opt to stick around, Lewandowski will be 38, with his best days firmly behind him. Roque, meanwhile, will hopefully be on the verge of realising his potential on a European stage.

    So, perhaps this Lewandowski drought is manageable. Much has been made of Barca's financial mismanagement in recent years, and a series of puzzling transfers to accompany it. The Blaugrana don't have much money, and haven't spent the coins they can scrape from behind the sofa particularly well, either.

    If this is, indeed, an end — or the start of it — Barca are surprisingly well-positioned to deal with it. Roque won't be a star immediately, nor does he offer the exact skillset as Lewandowski. This is a player who relies on pace and power; bullying centre-backs is not his forte. Still, he has immense potential, and, at the very least, should allow the misfiring forward a rest. Perhaps that's what his aging body needs more than anything.

    Lewandowski isn't finished — not yet. But the last eight months have shown Barca what life could be like when he's gone. Roque's fresh legs can't come soon enough.