Robert Lewandowski swapped perennial winners Bayern Munich for crisis club Barcelona last summer. After winning 10 Bundesliga titles (two for Borussia Dortmund, then eight at Bayern), the Poland striker wanted a new challenge. He wanted to help take Barca back to the top of Spanish and European football.
Domestically, things are going well. His 15 goals in 21 appearances have helped Barca build a nine-point lead over Real Madrid at the top of LaLiga heading into Sunday’s Clasico. He also scored in the Supercopa triumph over the same opponents in January.
– El Clasico: Stream LIVE 3/19, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN+ (U.S.)
Things didn’t go so smoothly in Europe, however, with Barca eliminated from the Champions League group stage and then losing their Europa League playoff to Manchester United, but Lewandowski says that gives them something to build on next season.
In an interview with ESPN’s Martin Ainstein, he speaks about swapping Bavaria for the Catalan coast, the process Barca are undertaking under coach Xavi Hernandez, his advice for the club’s youngsters in his role as a leader and a midnight chat in a bar with Jurgen Klopp that changed the path of his career.
ESPN: You have achieved almost everything in your career. How do you keep going?
Lewandowski: After so many years in one league, in one country, I think I achieved everything I could achieve. I’m very glad about what I won with Bayern Munich, what I achieved there. But in the end, you’re thinking not only about football [in terms of] football, but you’re thinking about football as your life. And at one point I thought: ‘OK, I have achieved everything, I have a comfort zone there, but in the end what makes me more happy?’ I [thought] maybe I need a change.
ESPN: There is a phrase that says if you are too comfortable in a place, move somewhere where you have challenges.
Lewandowski: For sure. I had one moment [when I realised] I didn’t feel what I felt before. I was afraid if I didn’t change something, that this energy, this love for football that was going the wrong way, that would go down more. I know I am 34 years old now, but it’s only a number because I know I can still play at a high level for a few years.
ESPN: Xavi Hernandez gave you many compliments a couple of days ago. He said you changed the club’s mentality. Why did he say that?
Lewandowski: When I came to Barcelona, in my head the only challenge is to win, it doesn’t matter who we are playing, it’s to win, to score goals. Of course, at Barcelona, I have to decide what is sometimes more important: to score the goal or to win the game. I know that Barca needed time after a difficult few seasons but also that titles are important. So, the first thing is always that with the club we have to improve. We have to make the next step to not only play better, but to win more.
I saw the potential in the team even if two years ago Barcelona had big problems. But now, I’m sure that everything we are doing, how hard we are working … in the end we will achieve our goals. Even still, for example, we had the problems in the Champions League and this is what we have to think about, what we can do better next season. It’s a process and it’s impossible to change [everything] in one week or one month. You need more time.
ESPN: How far are Barcelona from again reaching a Champions League final? From being competitive at that level?
Lewandowski: If we were playing the Champions League now, we [would] probably still be playing in the Champions League because we have improved. We have improved even though we are only talking about a few months later. And [when we were knocked out], we also we had a lot of injuries. You can learn from these situations, what you can do better the next future. I already won [a] Champions League, 10 [Bundesliga titles], but for some of the 18- and 19-year-olds [at Barca], this season could be the first time they win LaLiga. Of course, we still have to fight until the last game, but [winning] titles brings self-confidence. I remember when I was 18 or 19 years old, I had not won league titles and I didn’t get this. But later it was easier and more self-confidence [came] and I [could] prove it on the pitch.
ESPN: You and Xavi both say football has changed. How so?
Lewandowski: Football is changing all of the time. Always. If you compare how the teams or how football looks now and even five years ago, it’s different. Ten years ago, everyone wanted to play tiki taka, but football is more physical now. Everyone knows how to prepare their game tactically, defensively how to move, how to change the system during the game. It’s important to not only adapt, but maybe to be one step forward. Everyone wanted to copy Barcelona with [former coach Pep Guardiola], but even now if you see Manchester City, they don’t play like that anymore.
ESPN: Also at Bayern, Guardiola played differently as well.
Lewandowski: He tried more tiki taka, but he realised that we had different kinds of players. He had to adapt. It’s like maybe one time in I don’t know how many years, you find the players like [Andres] Iniesta, Xavi, Lionel Messi, Dani Alves…
ESPN: So describe football nowadays, what is working right now?
Lewandowski: Now it’s more physical, you even see it in LaLiga, it’s changed. It’s not like before. It’s still technique, but also physical games. The teams are prepared physically, tactically as well. It’s important because the way football is going [is to] be faster, have more speed. Players are faster on the wings, upfront. This is the way that football is going. Everyone wants to see very fast players, very technical. But I think football still needs unique players as well.
ESPN: Right now Barcelona are winning games that in the past they didn’t. A lot of 1-0s. But the philosophy is not necessarily seen in those games. What do you think about this?
Lewandowski: We are in a process and you cannot change or build everything, you have to be focused first to build a very strong defence. And defensively we’re playing well, but offensively maybe we have a lot to change to play better football, to create more chances and score even more goals. The most important thing is to win the game. The next step will be to [create] more [chances] and score more goals, but to still [remain strong] defensively. It’s also about the mentality. We have to still be focused on defensive [qualities], but we have to risk more. We cannot be afraid because in attack, and if you know that the back is safe, it’s easier to decide: ‘OK, I can take risks, I can try something new.’
ESPN: Next up is the Clasico. Why is it so difficult to play against Real Madrid?
Lewandowski: Because they have a lot of good, amazing players. They have experience, they have already achieved everything. You see also how self-confident they are when they play, but in the end this is one game. This is the game that’s the most important game, not only maybe in Spain but also in the world between the clubs. You know how many fans are waiting for this game all over the world? And even I, before, when I wasn’t playing in Barcelona, I knew that the Clasico is coming, so I’m going to watch this game. Now I am the part of the Clasico. For me, it is something special, something amazing.
But always if you’re playing at Camp Nou, always when I get on the pitch, even sometimes when I am tired because we had a lot of games, I get extra powers. This feeling when they call my name, it’s like: ‘Oh, come on, I’m ready, I want to play already, I want to score goals, I want to win the game. Wow, I’m playing here.’ This stadium, even if it is old, it has history, it has magic. You feel that.
ESPN: Let’s talk about coaches, you have had some of the best. What is the best thing about Jurgen Klopp, for example?
Lewandowski: His personality. He is the guy who can be like a father, the guy that can help you all the time, but also he’s the guy who can try to push you. This is the guy who you can go to him, speak with him. We are all human, we all have problems. He’s not only the coach, he is the guy who … you can learn from him, also [about] life. I learned a lot under him.
ESPN: Could you give an example?
Lewandowski: I think that one situation changed my career. It was the first season, maybe the beginning of my second season, at Dortmund. I wasn’t in good form, I didn’t score so many goals. I didn’t know what Jurgen wanted from me. After a game that we lost, I went to him directly. It was maybe midnight at the hotel. I said: ‘I want to speak with you because I don’t understand and I don’t know what you want from me, what you expect from me.’ And this conversation was like, I thought that maybe we’re going to speak five minutes, 10 minutes, but we were speaking about an hour and a half. The most important thing was that I was speaking with him, maybe like a father. And I missed my father because I lost my father when I was 16 years old. Maybe since that time, I couldn’t find someone who can talk with me like that.
Three days later, and remember you cannot change anything in training because you don’t have time, we were playing in the Bundesliga and I scored a hat trick and got one assist and we won 4-0. That was Augsburg, I think. In that moment I understood that mentality and what you have in your head is so important because I didn’t change anything. But I felt some freedom, just like I’m clear in my mind. After this everything changed.
ESPN: Do you remember what he told you that night?
Lewandowski: I don’t remember everything, but what I remember is he told me that if I give on the pitch during the game, like 70% of my quality from training, he will be happy. From that I understood that what I was doing was enough for him. I had to make the next step to bring this quality into games. This small change changed my life and maybe changed the road [I was on] in my life.
ESPN: Guardiola. What is special about him?
Lewandowski: Pep is the coach who changed my mind about football. Sometimes I don’t know if it’s good or not, because sometimes I’m thinking that maybe if I am stupid, that it’s easier to play because [now] I see too much. I think too much and I see too much sometimes during the game. But that helped me a lot also, if I see and I can change things and [communicate that to] my teammates: ‘They’re playing like this, so maybe we change also our movement, our style or system.’
I was working with Pep for two years and I spoke with him a lot. I remember one day he said to me, ‘I can help you only with how to build the action, how to build up with the ball, to bring the ball to the box. But what you are going to do with the ball, I can’t help you because you know better than me. But everything until the box, I can help you because I know how to build it up, how to change the sides, how to move the position … everything. But in the end you are better than me. So you decide.’
ESPN: And Carlo Ancelotti?
Lewandowski: He’s the guy who gave me amazing self-confidence. He gave me maybe what I missed and he gave me the self-confidence that I didn’t have before. He’s an amazing human. He’s the guy who takes care of you.
ESPN: You’re talking about people who are being human with you at the same time as they want you to perform. They see that the key is to connect with a human being.
Lewandowski: That’s true. Sometimes people forget that we are human and think we are a machine, robots, that we cannot have bad feelings, a bad mood. People can think we are the product, that we’re going to training, to the game and we don’t do anything else. It’s not correct. OK, we got the talent, we’re working very hard to be where we are, that is one thing, but also we’re coming back [home], we have a family, we have kids, we have problems, we have to do these kind of things that everyone does every day. We can have bad moments. Sometimes it’s like that something inside you feel, but you don’t know what it is exactly.
ESPN: Did you have these dark moments in your life?
Lewandowski: I had a few moments in my life, for sure. It’s not like my way [has been] easier. It was also painful at times. But even when I had these [dark] moments and I was thinking: ‘Come on, what’s going on?’ I try, I do, but something doesn’t work. You have to be patient, you have to think: ‘OK, if you work hard, if you are focused on football, think about what you can do better, faster, fight for a better performance…’ I have to fight, I have to try. Maybe a solution [arrives]. Maybe I will be lucky. Maybe I get a ball from someone who makes a mistake and I have to be ready.
ESPN: There are a lot of young, talented players at Barcelona. What would be your advice to them?
Lewandowski: It depends which players we are talking [about]. To Gavi? At first, learn English [laughing]. If you want to be international guy, you have to learn English. I learn Spanish now and look how old I am. So it’s not a problem for you. It should be easier to learn English. But I can speak with him in Spanish now. But if we are talking about the football, I tell him, ‘Gavi, it’s not important what you achieved in the last game. The most important is the next game and what you can achieve.’ My mind is always [on the next] game. You cannot think that the last game will be the same as the next game. Maybe a game finishes at like 11 p.m. So for me, 11:30 p.m. I am already thinking how can I prepare for the next game better and be more fresh, have more energy, not two days before or one day before. Because sometimes that is too late to change anything.
Lewandowski: He’s the guy who has amazing technique with the ball. But I tell him, ‘Pedri, the goal is goals: you have to score more goals. You have to … not only goals, but also assists. You cannot only play football just to play football. It’s also important to have these numbers. I know that your performance in the game helped a lot. But in the end, goals and assists are also important. And to attack. Don’t be afraid, attack. If we score one goal, why can we not score the second goal?’
And this is also what I tell Gavi: ‘Gavi, we score one goal, OK? Don’t think that it’s enough. Think that we can score another one. If we score two goals, why we cannot score three goals?’ I scored five goals in nine minutes [for Bayern against Wolfsburg in 2015.] So why can we not score five goals in 90 minutes? Everything is possible. But you have to want to score these goals.
ESPN: Another player, not so young but still young, is Ousmane Dembele.
Lewandowski: He is the guy who from the first training session at Barcelona, I was very surprised [by], positively surprised by how [much] talent [he has] and how good he is, how fast his feet are. For me, he is really the guy who can be the top of the top in his position. He is already but sometimes injuries … he got an injury [in January]. But if he’s on the pitch, he can always do something with the ball. He can dribble so easy, so fast, like natural, pure talent. And this dribbling, if you see how he does it, how is it possible to be so fast? And you see that from the first training.
ESPN: What would you be your piece of advice to him?
Lewandowski: I don’t want to talk about the advice because I’m not the guy who can always say it’s my advice to you. But for him sometimes because he has the power in his legs, he’s so fast, but sometimes for him if he tried to find another way to make the assists, for example, because he’s fast with his speed everyone knows he’s good at that, he’s good and that’s why the opponents already wait for him. And if he used a different type of pass or playing, he can create more options. What I say also to Ousmane is: ‘Ousmane, be close to the goal. From the touch line you don’t score the goal, you don’t make the assist. OK, you can dribble past three or four players, but if you are closer to the goal, you have maybe only one opponent. And this is it for you to score the goal.’
ESPN: Football is about scoring, so bringing you is a good sign.
Lewandowski: Of course, I want to attack all the time. But, in the end, you have to find the balance between what is important for your team and what is important for you. I know that the time that’s coming, maybe soon, our offensive game will improve. We can play better. And this is maybe the next step in our process.
ESPN: How do you imagine the game will develop for Barcelona?
Lewandowski: Sometimes we play very well, but sometimes we win even when we don’t play well. This is also important: to know how to win, not how to play to win. Now we know how to win, but the next step will be to know how to win and how to play well and for the fans [be] more spectacular. If we score one goal, we have to think we can score maybe three goals more.
Let’s do this. Don’t be afraid. We have to give the fans something more. People come to the stadium to see the emotion. That’s why it’s important to have this idea, mentality. It doesn’t matter who we are playing. It’s important how we want to play.