Robert Lewandowski’s era at Bayern Munich is coming to an end.
The Poland striker, who scored 344 goals in 374 competitive games for the German team, made it clear he wants to go this summer.
“My story with Bayern is over. I don’t see an opportunity to play for this club anymore,” Lewandowski said during a press conference with the Poles.
These are harsh words that have come from one of the mainstays of FC Bayern over the past 10 years. Lewandowski, advised by agent Pini Zahavi, has preferred confrontation to dialogue with his club to force a move.
The Bayern management had repeatedly stated in the past few weeks that Lewandowski was not for sale and referred to his contract, which ran until 2023.
However, the striker, who turns 34 in August, intends to sign one last lucrative deal this year and has chosen Barcelona as a destination for what is likely to be the final phase of his career.
He has a verbal agreement with the Catalan club on a three-year deal. However, the potential move could prove to be a drawn-out affair as Barcelona are under the strict financial scrutiny of the Spanish league and won’t be able to easily pay a likely transfer fee of around €40m (£34m).
However, Lewandowski’s departure is just a problem for a club that for more than a decade was seen as a European superpower but now risks falling even further behind the continent’s top clubs.
Rich by German standards, but getting poorer
The quarter-final defeat by Villarreal in this year’s Champions League has raised questions about Bayern’s competitiveness outside of the Bundesliga.
Winning the league for a tenth consecutive year means little as domestic competition, including Borussia Dortmund, are miles behind Bayern.
On the other hand, Bayern are fighting a hard fight internationally due to financial bottlenecks. Having reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in eight of the past 13 seasons, Bayern have now been eliminated in the quarter-finals for the last two years – and there are fears things could get worse soon.
Bayern can count on reliable sponsors, but don’t have billionaire owners.
As a result, their cash and cash equivalents have fallen from €221m (£188m) to €113m (£96m) over the past two years, largely due to the impact of Covid-19 on revenue streams. A further drop to €60m (£51m) is expected.
Bayern simply cannot compete economically with Paris St-Germain, Manchester City or Real Madrid. Therefore, they have to be extremely clever in the transfer market and cultivate a winning culture.
Can Mane prove Bayern’s savior?
Bayern have already come to terms with losing their top striker this summer and are planning a future without Lewandowski. According to sources within the club, their plan is to play with a flowing three-point attack rather than a ‘target man’.
While Bayern are interested in traditional number nines like Austria’s Sasa Kalajdzic and 19-year-old Slovenian Benjamin Sesko, club board members and manager Julian Nagelsmann know they cannot adequately replace Lewandowski.
There are only a handful of forwards of Lewandowski’s level and none of them are available to Bayern.
So Nagelsmann plans a three-point attack like Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, because Leroy Sané, Thomas Müller, Kingsley Coman and Jamal Musiala are suitable for such a line-up.
Bayern have also reached out to Sadio Mane’s management and are working hard on a deal with the Senegalese striker, although there are still some financial issues to be resolved in these negotiations.
He wouldn’t be a Lewandowski replacement, but he could be seen as a statement-making commitment for the German side and potentially prevent Bayern from falling even further behind at European level.
Cracks and an aging roster
At a moment when calm and cohesion are required, Bayern are more unsettled than they have been for years. Nagelsmann and sports director Hasan Salihamidzic have different opinions on many things, even with an aging squad.
Also, more and more players seem to be dissatisfied with their situation.
“After everything that has happened in the past few months, I can’t imagine a good working relationship,” said Lewandowski recently.
We don’t know if his statement was just a means to force a move or reflects his honest opinion, but it’s good fodder for those who have criticized communications within the club.
Serge Gnabry is another key player who could drop out soon. As with Lewandowski, financial incentives are not the main motivation for the German winger as he contemplates his exit, as Bayern recently made a lucrative extension offer. Instead, he feels disrespected.
Nagelsmann himself isn’t popular with everyone in the dressing room either, which could cause discord if Bayern suffer a dry spell in the early months of next season as they adjust to playing without Lewandowski.
How the German champions, one of the best-oiled machines in European football in the last decade, handle the opening weeks of next season will be a key indicator of how successfully they will navigate their uncertain future.