The Best Striker in the World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The most prolific scorer in the world might surprise you.
After landing at the Bundesliga’s Borussia Dortmund in 2010, a little-known Polish striker has scored goals better than just about anyone does anything. One of the most well-rounded goalscorers in soccer, with his two-footed proficiency, exceptional heading and killer instinct in the box, Robert Lewandowski has never ranked below third in the German league in goals scored. After moving to German giant Bayern Munich in 2014, he’s the best player on one of the best teams in the world.
Too bad most Americans don’t even know his name.
All-time greats Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have dominated global soccer conversation the past decade and a half, but Lewandowski, 31, looks primed to carry the proverbial torch.
Earlier this season, Lewandowski became the first player in German top-flight history to score in the first nine league games, eventually extending that streak to 13 consecutive matches. With 35 goals on the season, he has scored more goals this season than he has played matches (31). But what sets Lewandowski apart is how he does it.
In Europe’s Big Five leagues this season, the average player is taking around 1.2 shots per 90 minutes, and the average value of each shot is right around 0.12 xG, or “expected goal percentage.” Fifteen players average at least four shots per 90 minutes this season, with just two — Ronaldo and Paris Saint-Germain wunderkind Kylian Mbappé — blasting more than five attempts per game. But among players who’ve played at least 75 percent of their team’s minutes …
Lewandowski is the only player in the world averaging more than 4.5 shots per 90 minutes with an above-average expected goal percentage.
Lewandowski’s expected goals per shot figure (0.18) dwarfs that of Ronaldo (0.09) and Messi (0.10). Only Mbappé (0.18) has matched the Pole, but he’s played only 60 percent of Paris Saint-Germain’s minutes. And while Ronaldo is the world leader at shots per 90 minutes (5.46), Lewandowski still leads scoring across all Big Five Leagues with 22 Bundesliga goals to Ronaldo’s 20 in Italy’s Serie A.
“He’s the most precise, most efficient tactician in the world,” says NBC soccer analyst Kyle Martino. “Now he’s played his way into being the best pure striker in the world.”
With Premier League weekend matinees on NBC, stateside fans know the biggest names in England, and Ronaldo and Messi — winners of 11 of the last 12 Ballon d’Or trophies for world’s best footballer — are household names. But Lewandowski has yet to break through on such a level. Will that change, should the Ballon d’Or be issued to him this summer?
“The continued rise in popularity of the [UEFA] Champions League helps,” says ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman. “We don’t get to watch the Bundesliga very often, but now we can watch Bayern Munich play the Chelseas and the Barcelonas, and Bayern looks like a favorite.”
As is the case for fickle soccer fandom here in the States, though, Lewandowski’s breakout may come in Qatar in 2022. “He’s already a star in Europe, but if he leads Poland on a strong World Cup run, he’s global,” says Twellman.
Outside Lewandowski and Mbappé, most players averaging more than four shots per game are doing so with below-average efficiency. That is especially true in Serie A, where seven players — led by Ronaldo — are averaging more than four shots per game. None has an above-average expected goal percentage. If you want pure madness, look to Italy, where strikers figure that if five of every 100 shots settles wrapped in twine, they’ve earned their keep.
To put this in perspective, it helps to think of strikers like wildly inefficient, high-usage scorers in the NBA. In Italy, everyone is Russell Westbrook. Shots clank off the backboard incessantly and, by game’s end, the blind squirrel finds a nut.
Meanwhile, Premier League leading scorer Jamie Vardy is more like Rudy Gobert — an effective scorer with impressive statistics and a workmanlike efficiency but low usage rate. So far this season, Vardy has 17 goals on an incredible 0.20 expected goals per shot. That tops all notable Big Five scorers. But Vardy takes just 2.32 attempts per game. He picks his spots, but he hardly dictates the action.
Lewandowski, meanwhile, is James Harden. Just as Harden has taken the basketball crown as the world’s most effective and efficient scorer. When Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey moved Harden to primary point guard in 2017, he did so with the goal of maximizing his star scorer’s output. With the ball in his hands more than ever before, Harden has free reign to hoist three-pointers and attack the rim. This season, Harden leads the NBA in scoring, three-point attempts and free throw attempts. He’s third in efficiency, thanks to the fact that he shoots more than any of his peers. Westbrook, meanwhile, ranks second in shot attempts but 33rd in Player Efficiency Rating.
And therein lies the point. In a low-scoring chess match like soccer, Ronaldo’s Westbrookian shot chasing is a tried-and-true approach. But much like Harden, Lewandowski has leveled up, unlocking a new brand of sport-defining efficiency and flipping traditionalism on its head. If other high-efficiency scorers, like Vardy, take a cue from Lewandowski and up their output, a whole new brand of scoring could invade the football world.
Perhaps it’s time we pay attention.