- Robert Lewandowski had his mind set on a move away from Bayern Munich. Now that it hasn't happened, will the scoring machine be in the right frame of mind to lead the club again? The early indications are that he will, which is bad news for anyone wanting a Bundesliga title race.
Germany's Bundesliga is a very enjoyable league, housing some of the world's best atmospheres, top talents and competitive teams. Its matches frequently entertain, and it's become a home for many young American prospects on the rise. There's no denying its place among the top leagues in the world when it comes to quality.
It's also poised to feature a one-horse race yet again.
Bayern Munich remains far and away the best club in the league, and its dominance–the club has won the last six league titles–doesn't show any real signs of letting up. There's a new manager, Niko Kovac, and there are questions regarding the future of veteran center back Jerome Boateng before the Aug. 31 transfer deadline, but, without trying to oversimplify or overstate too much, neither should really impact the domestic bottom line. If there's a potential crack in the foundation, though, and something that could limit the club's European ambitions, it's with the state of its leading man, Robert Lewandowski.
The Polish striker has had a heck of a last six months. In February, he replaced his representation with noted superagent Pini Zahavi, whose task appeared to be orchestrating a move elsewhere, with Real Madrid and Chelsea appearing to be the leading suitors. The problem for Lewandowski was that he is under contract at Bayern through the 2020-21 season, and the club's leadership has remained steadfast in its refusal to sell. He went silent in the club's biggest Champions League games of the season, then was held without a goal at the World Cup as Poland limped out in the opening stage, despite being the top-seeded team in its group.
Lewandowski, whose 29 league goals last season nearly doubled that of his closest competitor, took a lack of club support during his ill-timed dip in form quite personally, and after four seasons wanted a new start.
"In April, May, almost everyone shot me. I felt no protection from the club. I felt alone. I scored no goals in two or three important games and suddenly everyone was thinking: ‘Free shots at Lewandowski!’ the 30-year-old forward recently said. "I did not see anyone who was behind me at the time. Nobody was behind me, neither [Karl-Heinz Rummenigge or Uli Hoeness] defended me.
“I felt I had just spent a season at Bayern and had zero credit from the club. That’s why I thought about a move."
His sense of entitlement and eye on the exit didn't go unnoticed at the club. Joshua Kimmich, who at 23 is already one of Bayern's key figures, had pointed comments for Lewandowski upon his return.
"I’m confident that Robert knows how important he is to us. With him, you have a guarantee of 30 goals. Although, last season, I think it was only 29. That was almost a disappointment," Kimmich said in a recent interview Sport1. "On the other hand, he also has to see that he doesn’t score goals because he gets the ball in the back and dribbles through by himself, but rather he has other teammates who support him so that he can score goals every year. It’s not just our appreciation of him, but rather he also has to appreciate us."
Lewandowski, then, has not just the fans to answer to, but also his teammates, in order to maintain a cohesive locker room and repair the club chemistry before assuming his role as the unstoppable go-to force he has become.
"Now, I’m back at Bayern with my whole heart," Lewandowski said. "I noticed here in Munich how the fans are behind me, and I realize that they still want me. I would never go on a strike or mess with the club. I’m not wasting any thoughts about moving away anymore."
If that's the case–and based on Lewandowski's German Super Cup hat trick and DFB Pokal first-round game-winner, it appears to be–then Bayern will have the answer to this Bundesliga season's biggest question quite early.
Sure, there are second-tier questions entering the season around the league too, like if Dortmund can finally find stability under Lucien Favre after a rotating door of managers; if RB Leipzig can continue on its impressive path despite losing Naby Keita and before manager Julian Nagelsmann takes charge next season; if Germany's World Cup failure has any sort of impact or trickle-down effect on the domestic stars of the national team. From an American perspective, there's the intrigue in how the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Josh Sargent will fare.
Last season's race for the top four was excellent, and that's likely where the drama will be again. Third place and eighth place were separated by six points, for instance. But Bayern won the title by 21 points last season over second-place Schalke. Third-place Hoffenheim was another eight points in the distance. In its six-season run, Bayern has never failed to win the league by fewer than 10 points.
Bayern's ambition, of course, is for European glory and not just winning another piece of domestic silverware. When it comes to the question of who the true contenders for the league title really are, though, the answer, as long as Lewandowski remains locked in, begins and ends at Bayern's Allianz Arena. Again.