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The Making of a Goal Machine

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Robert Lewandowski does not characterize it as thought. Not conscious thought, anyway. In those moments when he has the ball at his feet and the goal in his sights, even after all these years, even when he can lay claim to being the most complete, most ruthless, most polished striker of his generation, he is not thinking.

Or more to the point: He is not aware of himself thinking. He is not weighing options, rifling through possibilities, selecting the best of them. Thinking takes time, and there is no time. “There is not even half a second to think about what to do or how to do it,” he said.

And yet he is thinking. Or more to the point: He is learning. He is absorbing information, analyzing it, filing it away.

There was a moment in his game for Bayern Munich against Borussia Dortmund in March when the ball fell to Lewandowski on the edge of the penalty area. He took a touch, and a shot. It was not, by his own admission, “perfect.” His effort flew over the crossbar. Lewandowski turned away in disappointment, ruing an opportunity wasted.

Except that it wasn’t. In that fraction of a second, the 32-year-old Lewandowski still noticed the following things: where Marwin Hitz, the Dortmund goalkeeper, was positioned on his line; when and how Hitz set himself to react to his shot; which of Dortmund’s defenders closed him down and which backed away; and the complex interplay of angles that accompanied their movements.

He took all that in, computed it and reached a conclusion. “I thought that next time, maybe it would be possible to score either between the legs or to go for the far post,” he said. He logged it for later.

An hour or so later, Bayern had recovered from the two-goal head start it had afforded Dortmund. Lewandowski had scored twice: once from close range, once from the penalty spot. Bayern led, 3-2.

In the game’s dying minutes, Bayern’s Alphonso Davies crossed the ball to Leroy Sané. Rather than collect it, Sané feinted, allowing the pass to run through to the advancing Lewandowski. All of a sudden, he was pretty much where he had been in the first half: on the edge of the area, the ball at his feet, the goal in his sights.

Again, he was not thinking. His subconscious had taken over. But this time, he had all the information he needed. One touch opened an angle. A second fizzed the ball low and beyond the reach of Hitz, into the far corner. “I had found the solution,” he said.

The Straightest Way to Goal

Lewandowski has 39 goals for Bayern Munich, one shy of the Bundesliga single-season record that has stood since 1972.Credit…Pool photos by Andreas Gebert

Strikers, as a rule, tend not to be picky. Their ruthlessness is rooted in an understanding that all goals count the same: the one snaffled from a few inches after the goalkeeper has spilled the ball is no more or less valuable than a flying volley or an overhead kick. Artistic merit does not win games.

It is a little surprising, then, that Lewandowski will confess to having a favorite type of goal. It is not the one you would expect from a player whose brilliance is rooted in economy. He does not, by his own admission, “like to make too much show.” He takes no more touches than necessary; every action is chosen only if it serves the ultimate purpose of scoring.

That lack of ornament is his hallmark. It is why the first instinct of his teammate Thomas Müller is, in any given circumstance, to give him the ball. “I always try to find the straightest way to goal,” Müller said. As a general rule, he said, that path runs through Lewandowski.

And yet there is one type of goal that Lewandowski enjoys more than any other: a strike from long range, the type Müller describes dismissively as “a circus shot.” “If I can score from outside the box, that is extra,” Lewandowski said.

He can, at least, afford to be choosy. He has, after all, scored an awful lot of goals: 38 in two years for Znicz Pruszkow, his first senior club in his native Poland; 41 in two seasons for Lech Poznan; 103 in four years at Dortmund. At Bayern, somehow, his trajectory has grown even steeper.

“I don’t feel I am 32,” he said. “I feel better than I did when I was 26 or 27.”Credit…Pool photos by Andreas Gebert

He currently has 292 goals in 327 games for the club. This season, which started not long after his 32nd birthday, he scored 35 in his first 25 Bundesliga games until a knee injury picked up on international duty put the brakes on his run. Now healthy again, and with a hat trick on Saturday as Bayern clinched its ninth straight league title, he has moved to within one of the league’s record for goals in a single campaign — held by Gerd Müller and untroubled for four decades — with two matches remaining.

There might now be just the faintest dusting of gray hairs at his temples, but Lewandowski shows no signs of slowing. If anything, he is being more effective. “I don’t feel I am 32,” he said. “I feel better than I did when I was 26 or 27.”

In part, he attributes that to the arc of his career. He was not earmarked for stardom from a young age. He did not start out in the academy of a major team. His first steps, instead, came in the Polish third division. From that point on, he said, he felt he “had to prove something.”

When he arrived at Dortmund in 2011, he remembers feeling he had to train when others might have taken days off to recover: The pain, he said, “was not important.” Looking back, he wonders if he pushed himself too hard. “After three months, I was too tired, so I needed longer to show my form,” he said.

To those who have worked with him, though, his hunger is only a part of the formula. In an interview with the German newspaper Bild this year, Jürgen Klopp, his manager at Dortmund, called Lewandowski the best player he has coached. “How he pushed himself to become the player he is today, that’s extraordinary,” Klopp said. “He took every step he needed to be that goal machine. Every one.”

Built to Score

Only a knee injury has slowed Lewandowski this season.Credit…Christof Stache/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When Holger Broich looks at Lewandowski, he does not see what we see: the deftness of his touch, the surety of his finishing and the coolness of his head. Or, rather, he does not see only that. He sees beyond it, too, to what he has come to see as the real wonder of Lewandowski, the real source of his talent: the way, at the deepest possible level, that he is built.

As Bayern’s head of science and fitness, Broich knows Lewandowski better than anyone. He knows that Lewandowski can tolerate an extraordinary amount of stress and pain, as his almost spotless injury record demonstrates. He knows that his metabolism allows him to develop, and regenerate, the sorts of muscle fiber a striker needs.

He knows that at least part of that is hard-wired into Lewandowski’s DNA. “Talent is a very broad term,” Broich said. “It has to do with genetic prerequisites, too.”

But Broich also believes that all of that accounts for only “40 to 60 percent” of athletes’ ability. The rest depends on who they are, what they do with it. And Klopp was not exaggerating when he said that Lewandowski’s whole life, for more than a decade, had been designed to help him score as many goals as possible.

It started with cornflakes. “Every morning, I ate cornflakes with milk,” Lewandowski said. “I thought it was fine. It was only breakfast, I was skinny, I had muscles. I thought sweet things were OK because I didn’t have a problem with my weight. But sometimes, by 10 a.m. or 11 a.m., I was tired, even before training, and I didn’t know why.”

So in his early 20s, he started to experiment. He cut out milk. He avoided refined sugar. “I saw a difference after a few weeks, a few months,” he said.

But his focus was not on the immediate. “I thought that if I changed the things I did, it could help me play at a higher level for longer,” he said. “I knew I could not expect immediate results. I did it because I had to try. I knew if I started at the top level a little later, I could be there for longer.”

Now — thanks in part to the expertise of his wife, Anna, a nutritionist — Lewandowski, semifamously, eats his meals in what is generally accepted to be the wrong order. “If I have time to have dessert, I prefer to eat it an hour or so before lunch,” he said. “I don’t always eat it, but if I do, I try to have a distance between carbohydrates and protein.”

Lewandowski scored three times Saturday in a 6-0 rout of Borussia Mönchengladbach that sealed Bayern Munich’s ninth straight Bundesliga title.Credit…Christof Stache/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It is not simply his diet that has been refined. Over the years, Lewandowski has investigated anything and everything that might give him an edge. “These details make a big difference,” he said. “It is not just performance or ability: If something that can help me run faster, run more, recover quicker, I try to do it.”

That, obviously, comes at a cost. A life built around scoring goals inevitably means a life stripped of other things. Lewandowski professes not to miss any of it; the only thing he regrets, he said, is that soccer’s unrelenting schedule means he does not get to be spontaneous, to take a weekend off to go away with Ana and their two daughters.

And so even now he keeps searching for edges. He takes a keen interest in the work Broich and his sports science team do at Bayern: the performance diagnostics, the individualized training programs.

What Lewandowski is — the way he is built: the muscle fibers and the metabolism and the genetic predisposition — might account for half of what he has achieved. The other half is down to who he is. After all, as Broich said, “the rest has to be acquired.”

The Switch

“He took every step he needed to be that goal machine,” said Jürgen Klopp, who coached Lewandowski at Dortmund. “Every one.”Credit…Pool photo by Leon Kuegeler

There is a story that Lewandowski tells about a day spent on a golf course with a group of friends. They were there, ostensibly, for a friendly round. They were not competing, not in any real sense. Until, that is, Lewandowski noticed he had a chance to win.

“It was like a switch had been flicked,” he said. “The professional player in me came out. The button changed from off to on, and I saw the difference between playing for fun and playing to win. You have to choose whether to have fun or whether to compete.”

That time, Lewandowski managed to reverse the process. He did not win. “That time, I chose to have fun,” he said. (He may, of course, be saying this because he did not win.)

There are other occasions, though, when he needs the switch. At Bayern, Lewandowski has won everything there is to win. He was chosen by FIFA as the world’s best men’s player last year. He is closing in on 500 career goals, and on Gerd Müller’s once-untouchable record. There is nothing left for him to prove.

He has honed his instincts to such a point that he can, without thinking, absorb all the information he needs to solve a problem, to score a goal, in a fraction of a second. He has turned himself into a machine.

But even now, every goal brings with it an overwhelming sense of joy. “You feel like you did when you were a child,” he said. It washes over him, now, for 30 seconds, maybe a minute.

And then, every single time, he is faced with a choice. “You can think: I have scored once, it’s enough,” he said. “You can lose focus, start freestyling. Or you can think I have scored once, so maybe I can score another. Is one enough, or do you want more? You need the button.”

Lewandowski has never had much difficulty making that choice. He does not even have to think. Or more to the point: He is not aware of himself thinking. “You press the switch,” he said, and you start to think about scoring again, and again, and again.

A mural on the wall of an elementary school in Lewandowski’s native Poland.Credit…Wojtek Jargilo/EPA, via Shutterstock