Munich - They have developed into two of the most-feared strikers in world football. In an age of false nines and inverted wingers, they are genuine, throwback number nines who lead the lines for FC Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund. Mario Mandzukic and Robert Lewandowski are showing the value of the classic centre-forward.
The duo at the centre of the Klassiker rivalry are in many senses very similar. First and foremost, they trade in goals - a number nine’s true currency. Mandzukic scored 12 in 2011/12 (with VfL Wolfsburg) and 15 in 2012/13. Lewandowski hit 22 in the first of those seasons and 24 in the second. Although the modern age has changed football in several ways - its relentless pressing, its unwavering team ethic - these two strikers seem more aware than most that the only thing that hasn’t changed in the history of the game is that the ball needs to be put in the back of the net.
Though there's little difference in their goalscoring feats, the manner in which go about their work varies. Mandzukic is menacing in the air: 21 of his 45 Bundesliga goals have come in such a fashion and his brace against Hertha Berlin on Matchday 10 illustrated his threat perfectly. His first header, from a Franck Ribery cross came in his unmistakeable flying manner, arms outstretched. His second was a classic predator’s finish, glancing home forcefully having beaten his marker.
Lewandowski, on the other hand, has only achieved ten of his 65 Bundesliga strikes with his head - his strength lies elsewhere. The Pole is probably the best player in world football with his back to goal. He has scored 14 goals with his left foot in his three years at Dortmund and 41 with his favoured right. For his unrivalled ability to hold up a ball, spin and shoot his goal against Real Madrid CF in last season’s UEFA Champions League should be proof enough. He then repeated the feat twice this season against SC Freiburg and VfB Stuttgart on Matchdays 7 and 11.
Lean, mean, pressing machines
Although goals might be their favoured currency, that is hardly to say that these thoroughbreds are one-trick ponies. At the forefront, literally and figuratively, of their two sides’ pressing games, the pair are key to Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola’s plans. Dortmund’s high-octane performances rely on a striker as lean and mobile as Lewandowski, who has attempted an astonishingly high 479 tackles this season.
Bayern’s pressing, by contrast, is more measured than intense. It is a concerted attempt to deny the opposition time or space in which to think. Mandzukic, although having only made 212 tackles in comparison to the Pole, has won just under 50 per cent. Guardiola will tell you that such endeavour leads to goals – but sometimes fans want something more tangible, a defence-splitting pass, a chested lay-off, a flicked header - the classic forms of assist for a centre-forward. Two seasons ago, Lewandowski picked up ten assists to Mandzukic’s 11, but last season the tables turned as Mandzukic’s first season at Bayern brought three assists, where Lewandowski picked up eight for BVB.
The race is on
This season has followed a similar narrative - Lewandowski has set up six goals for his team-mates; Mandzukic none. The signings of Thiago Alcantara and Mario Götze have strengthened Bayern’s hand - allowing Guardiola to experiment with his ‘false 9’. Mandzukic has started 12 of 16 games in the current campaign whereas Lewandowski has featured from the first whistle in 15.
Indeed, the Dortmund hitman has seemingly taken on more responsibility in the absence of Götze - a cruel twist for Mandzukic whose opportunities have begun to be limited with the attacking midfielder starting to find the net as regularly as he did at the Signal Iduna Park. Not that he is sitting idly by and watching his place be taken. Mandzukic has ten goals already this season. Only Lewandowski, with 11, has more. The race for the Torjäger Kanone is on.