The fact that João Félix has suddenly found form, attitude and goals at Barcelona is bad news for Robert Lewandowski. Why? Because it means that the spotlight must now inexorably turn towards the defending LaLiga champions' highest-paid, most-experienced, but worst-performing player.
Barcelona are, on the face of it, not in any kind of disastrous situation. They're four points off the top in LaLiga and have finally qualified again for the Champions League knockout rounds after two horrendous seasons in which they exited the competition during the group stage and then the Europa League in undignified, and financially unrewarding, circumstances.
But Barca have been playing apathetically, their LaLiga stats are significantly worse than this time last year and all the while, Lewandowski is misfiring. The champions have scored fewer goals, conceded more and have fewer points than at this stage last season.
Lewandowski is symbolic of the decline. We are in December, with a stack of important Copa and Supercopa dates around the corner, and the Poland international has only scored twice since September in either LaLiga or Champions League. A year ago he'd already hit the net 13 times domestically and five times in Europe. This term, the numbers are seven and one.
But the problem that plagues Barcelona isn't something that can be explained by simple statistics. If you were watching Lewandowski for the first time, then frankly you'd wonder how on earth someone so clumsy, slow and maladroit could play for Spain's champions. If you were a scout at a Barcelona game fishing for talent, then you'd mark him as follows: "Lumbering, atrocious first touch, attitude-deficient, do not sign!"
The 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid on Sunday night emphasised most of these traits. Repeatedly set up with great scoring chances, he bungled every one of them. Worse, his unenthusiastic, flat and clumsy involvements often cost Barcelona the initiative, caught them offside or simply gifted away good possession because his touch was leaden, his pass was short or his anticipation was dull.
There's not a hint of malice in my assessment. Lewandowski has been a modern phenomenon. Last season, his goal total, despite that he didn't play well for most of the second half of it, was indisputably a central reason for Barcelona winning their first title in four years. But if one is employed in this role, then sometimes it becomes one's unpleasant duty to cut through the fluff and to be unafraid of stating blunt facts. Far beyond his goal or assist total, Lewandowski is playing like a guy whose enthusiasm for where he is and why he came here has dwindled to the point that it's obvious on the pitch.
I guess you could look at it from his point of view. He's still famously resentful that he didn't win the Ballon d'Or the year the award was abandoned because of the pandemic (2020). He moved to Barcelona with the clear strategy that proving himself to be the missing link in how a once mighty, but now ailing club could fabulously resurrect itself thanks to his greatness would, once seen by the awe-inspired voters, propel him to the Ballon d'Or he so craves.
As a strategy, it wasn't ridiculous. Only two Ballon d'Or wins since 2009 have come from outside LaLiga -- Messi for PSG and for Inter Miami CF. Madrid neither wanted nor needed Lewandowski, he'd despaired of getting the industry adulation he was so desperate for by staying in the Bundesliga -- which left Barca.
My point about how he actually performed last season, despite scoring 23 in 34 LaLiga matches, was borne out by the fact that he didn't really trouble the scorers when it came to Ballon d'Or voting -- he was ranked fifth by judges from countries like Uganda, United Arab Emirates and Equatorial Guinea. Beyond that, he was largely ignored by those from every single "major" soccer nation around the globe.
It's only an opinion rather than hard fact, but I think that's had a pretty devastating impact on this proud, ambitious man. His idea about being the resurrection man at Camp Nou arguably went straight out the window thanks to their Champions League elimination, and the strategy was dead in the water.
Life at Barcelona is, otherwise, a privileged bubble. The weather's nice, he won two trophies last season, and because he was the flagship signing when the club was rebuilding last summer (€45m), his salary (as consistently reported by the Catalan media) was €20m in Season 1, €26m currently and will ascend to €32m if he's still at Barcelona next season. Nice work if you can get it.
A seductive cocktail of professional disappointment, dolce vita personal contentment and untouchable status in this squad has led to the 35-year-old performing and working as if the rest of the team owes him the ball being delivered onto his toes a couple of metres out from an open goal.
Lewandowski's level of integration into the work ethic, the responsibility he takes for holding the ball up and redistributing it brilliantly, for creating big chances for himself and teammates -- all of these are notably deficient right now. And have been for some time. The commentator's phrase "a heavy first touch" is becoming one reserved for him and him alone.
It's not hard to appreciate manager Xavi's dilemma. He invested a lot in persuading the Pole to choose Barcelona when he was leaving Bayern Munich. While Lewandowski's playing level merits him being dropped in order to communicate a "time to shape up" message, it's either a very daring or very secure coach who starts a civil war of that scale.
When Barcelona's coach talks about his misfiring, underperforming striker, he says weird, oblique things about how Lewandowski never stops training. Well, why should he? Phrases which, frankly, only serve to make the independent thinker say to himself: "Well, why aren't Lewandowski's performances sharper, more interesting or beginning to threaten that they'll yield good football?"
Barcelona's financial situation isn't improving hugely. It'll help to go through to the Champions League knockout rounds and would be greeted with joyous cartwheels if, for example, the team could reach the semifinals or better. It would be hugely remunerative but remains a relatively unlikely prospect. Particularly with Lewandowski stinking the house out.
Nevertheless, Gavi being absent for the rest of the season means that 80% of his salary can be liberated in the name of financial fair play. If the club can flog off a few more crown jewels, then they stand a strong chance of integrating their 18-year-old Brazilian striker Vitor Roque in January, who will be at first on loan from Athletico Paranaense then made permanent in July.
Should they manage this, it'll be intriguing to see what effects the youngster's arrival will have. Lewandowski's strike partner? His replacement up front? A source of envy for the often moody Pole or a stimulus to him actually doing what he's already so well-paid to do?
Unquestionably the best solution for Barcelona and Xavi would be one of the Saudi teams deciding that Lewandowski should have his salary doubled -- something they could do without blinking -- and be transferred out next summer. Meanwhile, it's high time that he dug deep, found some extra professional pride and began doing even the basics parts of being a central striker well again.