Robert Lewandowski’s four-goal haul for Bayern Munich against Red Star Belgrade in the UEFA Champions League took him to 27 goals in just 20 competitive matches for the club this season - which got bundesliga.com thinking: is he the best striker in the world?
The Bundesliga is not short of world-class strikers. Germany No.9 Timo Werner has already scored 62 goals in 105 league games since signing for RB Leipzig in 2016, and Paco Alcacer has found the target every 75 Bundesliga minutes he has played for Borussia Dortmund since the start of last term.
And yet Lewandowski – winner of the Torjägerkanone in three of the last four seasons – already only has one fewer league goal than Werner and Alcacer combined.
It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Lewandowski is the best striker in the Bundesliga, but to ask if he’s the best striker in the world, it only seems fair to pit him against the deadliest penalty box predators from the rest of Europe’s top five leagues per UEFA coefficient: Spain, England, Italy and France.
Who else is in the conversation?
La Liga: Lionel Messi won the European Golden Shoe last season with 36 La Liga goals, but the Argentine is no more a striker than he is a centre-back, orchestrating play from a withdrawn role on the right of Barcelona’s attack. Ahead of him on the field but behind him in the scoring charts was Luis Suarez, who, like Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, bagged 21 league goals. Benzema was worth 0.75 goals or assists per game last term, Suarez 0.74, and the Frenchman already has 10 to his name this season, to the Uruguayan’s seven.
English Premier League: In England, former Dortmund favourite Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Liverpool pair Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah shared the Golden Boot with 22 goals apiece, but Mane and Salah – like Messi – play wide of a front three. When playing time is factored in, Sergio Aguero was the Premier League’s deadliest striker, though, having a hand in 0.87 goals per game – versus Aubameyang’s 0.76 – as Manchester City became the first English team to wrap up a domestic treble. Aguero also has nine goal this term, to Auba’s eight.
Serie A and Ligue 1: Rounding out the top five are Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe, both of whom have played closer to the penalty spot as their careers have progressed. Yes, Fabio Quagliarella outscored Ronaldo by five goals in Serie A in 2018/19, but in all competitions for club and country, Messi's career nemesis could be trusted for a barely fathomable 0.91 goals per game, compared to Quagliarella's 0.88. And the Italian didn't win the UEFA Nations League either. Mbappe topped the lot with a potency rating of 1.21, meanwhile. In other words, every time Paris Saint-Germain or France had the FIFA World Cup-winning forward on the pitch, they knew they were more than a goal better off than without him.
Measure 1: Potency – the least time needed to score
(Minutes per goal for club and country since start of 2018/19)
Having narrowed down the field to the most potent from each of Europe’s top five leagues, the next step is to see quite how deadly they really are. In all competitions for club and country since the start of last season, only Mbappe could be trusted for a goal inside every 90 minutes, although Lewy is only 10 minutes back, comfortably ahead of Aguero, Ronaldo and Benzema.
Watch: All of Lewandowski's Bundesliga goals so far this season!
Lewandowski might have taken slightly longer than Mbappe for the net to bulge per fixture, but let’s take that with a pinch of salt, too. Mbappe’s France are the world champions, ranked some 19 places higher than Lewandowski’s Poland in the latest FIFA World Rankings. The Bundesliga outranks Ligue 1 by 10,536 points in the most recent UEFA club coefficients, meanwhile. At home, Mbappe faces easier opponents; on international duty he has better teammates.
Aguero is undeniably a magnificent striker, meanwhile, but his goals per minute are helped by the fact that he has been subbed off 39 times by Manchester City and Argentina since the start of last season. Lewandowski only made way for a Bayern or Poland teammate eight times. The fittest man in football has never missed more than two consecutive games for his club, that pinch of salt AFTER his dessert part of the equation.
Measure 2: How do they get their goals?
(Percentage of right-footed, left-footed and headed goals)
Ronaldo: R 45%, L 20%, H 35%
Aguero: R 61%, L 26%, H 13%
Lewandowski: R 64%, L 13%, H 24%
Benzema: R 56%, L 6%, H 38%
Mbappe: R 89%, L 11%, H 0%
What about the manner this Fantasic Five score their goals? Ronaldo has the most even spread between right-footed, left-footed and headed goals. For a player who began his career as a winger to have scored 35 percent of his goals with his head since the start of last season is testament to both his adaptability and athleticism. Sir Alex Ferguson famously said that he was ready to give Patrice Evra a dressing down for letting Ronaldo score for Real Madrid against Manchester United in February 2013, only to back off having seen a replay of the goal with Ronaldo’s knee level with the left-back's head.
Ronaldo aside, Aguero and Lewandowski are out in front of the two Frenchmen by this particular measure. Mbappe is without a headed goal since scoring a consolation for PSG in a 3-1 defeat to Lewy’s Bayern in the UEFA Champions League group stage in December 2017. Some 89 percent of Mbappe’s goals are scored with his favoured right foot; Benzema only tucks away six percent of his with his left, although he does boast the highest percentage of headers.
But what about the percentage of goals that these players choose NOT to score? Ronaldo was rarely seen celebrating with Benzema or Gareth Bale when the other members of Madrid’s fabled BBC scored. Contrast that to Lewandowski, who was on course for a record 10th goal from the first five Bundesliga matchdays in Bayern's 4-0 victory over Cologne. With a record – and hat-trick – his for the taking, the Poland captain instead allowed Philippe Coutinho to open his Bayern account from the penalty spot.
Watch: Highlights of Bayern's 4-0 win over Cologne
Measure 3: But can they do it when it counts?
Big players win matches, something Lewandowski has done 18 times since the start of 2018/19, four more than Aguero and Benzema over the same period, and some seven more times than renowned big-game player Ronaldo.
Ronaldo ended last season by adding Serie A and the Supercoppa Italiana to his trophy haul, not to mention leading Portugal to their UEFA Nations League triumph. Calls for him to be named as the 2019 Best FIFA Men’s Player in September were as loud as they were understandable. Aguero picked up the biggest haul of team titles meanwhile, winning the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Community Shield.
Watch: Lewandowski, on the path to greatness
But Lewy’s haul here is without equal. Not only did the 31-year-old win the domestic treble of Bundesliga, DFB Cup and Supercup, but he also picked up the Torjägerkanone as his league’s top goalscorer. Quagliarella pipped Ronaldo to the individual crown in Italy; Aubemeyang et al were ahead of Aguero in the English race.
Indeed, Lewy is the only striker of the bunch to claim top honours both as part of a team and individually. Six goals in three Klassiker meetings with Dortmund, two of Bayern’s three goals in their DFB Cup final victory over Leipzig, and now with Gerd Müller’s 40-goal Bundesliga season in his sights, Lewandowski has few equals past or present.
Is Lewandowski the best striker in the world?
It may be six years since Lewy plundered four for Dortmund against Ronaldo’s Real in the Champions League, but last season he matched the Portuguese in scoring twice against semi-finalists Ajax, went one better in bagging another brace in the 7-2 rout of last season's finalists, Tottenham, and now leads the way in the Champions League scoring charts this term with 10, which is only one fewer than Benzema, Mbappe, Aguero and Ronaldo combined.
As prolific, relentless and complete as any striker in the modern game, Lewandowski has redefined what it means to be a No.9.
Throw in the humility to play in teammates better placed to score and it’s perhaps unfair when fans talk narrowly of the Ronaldo-Messi era. Not that Lewy’s one to complain. He’s too busy tearing up opposition defences to notice.