Jupp Heynckes should make a daring move by benching Robert Lewandowski in favour of Sandro Wagner in FC Bayern’s Champions League semis, second leg, at Real Madrid on May 1.
I am going against conventional thinking by challenging the idea that your star striker should be the only one considered as a starter in the big matches.
Why? Simply because it can be hard to squeeze a great performance out of Lewandowski in the most important matches of a season.
Before going further, there is no doubt that Lewandowski is a great forward. I choose this word over “striker” for a reason. The current no.9 is awesome with the ball at his feet. He has a knack for falling back and getting involved in the passing game. He holds up play for his mates to catch up on the wings. He plays pretty football.
However, style is not the only important factor in this sport. Things get more complicated when you isolate finishing as a role. Lewandowski is not your traditional nine. Some of his headers are fine, but many are either weak or off target. He does not always dive into them when the angles are difficult, unlike a Mario Mandzukic who will happily eat grass if that means scoring a goal. Lewy misses sitters in the matches that matter the most.
Allow me to review Cup ties since the Pole has joined FC Bayern to show how Lewandowski’s efficiency has an impact. Those get all my attention because of their definition as knockout ties and matches.
- No goal against Real Madrid in the Champions League;
- Nothing over two legs against Sevilla in the Champions League.
- One goal scored in the second leg (lost 2:4) against Real in Champions League;
- Two out of 10 goals in the easy Arsenal tie in the Champions League;
- Nothing against Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and VfL Wolfsburg in the DFB-Pokal.
- Silence against Benfica in the Champions League;
- One goal against Atlético de Madrid in the Champions League;
- One goal against Juventus in the Champions League;
- Nothing against BVB, Werder Bremen and FC Augsburg in DFB-Pokal.
- Silence in a decisive Champions League first-leg loss against Barcelona, one goal in the second leg;
- Silence in the first-leg loss against Porto, two in the second-leg rout;
- Nothing against Wolfsburg and Leverkusen in the DFB-Pokal.
Do you see the worrying trend above? Lewandowski was silent in many difficult matches, but he scored more often when the team fired on all cylinders.
Furthermore, Lewandowski does not even crack the top 10 for Champions League goal this season, although he is ranked fourth in the “shots per game” department with a total of 4.3 on average.
The case for Sandro Wagner
I am putting forward the idea of starting Sandro Wagner as striker in a massive Champions League semi, second leg, against Madrid. It sounds crazy, but there are reasons for it.
Can we consider him as superior to Lewandowski? Not if you consider his Champions League pedigree. His only stints in that competition have been with Werder Bremen in 2010 and Hoffenheim in 2017 before coming to Munich.
Enter the intangible factors that appeared since Wagner’s transfer to FCB.
Sandro has displayed classic striker abilities. His touch is accurate in tight space. Shot accuracy stands at 71% in the Bundesliga this season (54% for Lewandowski) and he does not need many chances to convert. He may do it with an ankle, family jewels and whatnot, but he finds a way to make the ball go in. Most interestingly, he has scored on four headers this season, a classic striker strength.
Wagner has scored seven league goals in 597 minutes at Bayern in 2017-18. This puts him right behind Thomas Müller, who has eight goals in 1824 minutes. That level of efficiency is not too shabby for a guy who has not even spent half a season in Munich.
The comparison between Wagner and Lewandowski is fascinating from a stylistic point of view. Lewandowski pulls back and helps build plays, often leaving no natural forward in the box. Wagner goes in the penalty area and looks for a scoring chance. It may just be what Bayern need at the Bernabeu.
If this were a “best of seven” series in ice hockey, I would count on Robert Lewandowski’s overall abilities. However, we are talking about Champions League football. There is only one “do or die” mega-match coming on May 1 in Madrid. It separates the two teams from a final. Lewy lacks finish in those situations and it bothers me greatly.
I do not expect Jupp Heynckes to gamble on the dark horse, but I hope he does. Give a shot to the big man who could make a difference by converting one chance from a short range if that is all he gets.