Robert Lewandowski has been superb since arriving at Barcelona, but it’s also fair to say he changes the way they play. Seeing what they do while he’s suspended will be fascinating. Eric Alonso/Getty ImagesGiven that he has scored 18 times in 19 matches throughout his debut season, it would be nonsensical to argue that Barcelona will be better off without Robert Lewandowski while he’s suspended for their next three LaLiga matches. The Catalans, despite opening the campaign with a scoreless draw at home to Rayo Vallecano and getting a bit of a thumping from Real Madrid in the Clasico, while regularly exhibiting the same flaws that saw them knocked out of the Champions League, somehow sit top of the table as domestic football returns in Spain this week.That “somehow” can be defined in three ways: Madrid’s profligacy in dropping seven points against Girona, Osasuna and Rayo, plus Barca’s remarkable ‘goals-against’ tally of just five… and having Lewandowski in the team.The legendary Polish striker has repeatedly “sealed” all three points — he was the only scorer in 1-0 wins against Mallorca and Valencia — repeatedly has been the guy who breaks the 0-0 deadlock in other games and often also put wins beyond doubt with the strike by giving Barcelona a two- or three-goal margin. Stellar returns from a new signing, no doubt, but there’s a distinct argument that Barcelona play better, more complete, more convincing and more fluent football without him.2 RelatedWhen Xavi & Co. face Espanyol (home), Atletico in the capital and then Getafe back at Camp Nou over the coming weeks, there will be a chance not only for the team to show it can cope without Lewandowski but for the Catalan coach to test opponents in a wholly different way than Barca did in many of their previous fourteen LaLiga matches.So far, the evidence suggests that when they’re without a relatively static, traditional centre-forward, Barcelona play with more dynamism and threat and look much more like the template expected when the 42-year-old Catalan took over from Ronald Koeman in November 2021. However, the sample size is short and traditionalists will already be spluttering into their festive mulled wine: “… goals are everything… to hell with the quality of play. Lewandowski is master of all he surveys!”It’s also true that club president Joan Laporta deliberately turned the focus back on results over quality of performance when, just before Christmas, he announced that “we’ve made it crystal clear to everyone in the dressing room that our all-important objective is to win the league.” Win at all costs, as style points count for nothing was the message.Although not out of step with his employer, Xavi put it very differently. “We cannot lose our ‘house style’ — that’s the thing which has made the club great. It’s the playing idea via which the national team won a World Cup and two European Championships, how Barca won five Champions Leagues: in fact, it’s time we redoubled our efforts to achieve the essence of the Barcelona playing philosophy. Yes, we’ll need a Plan B and a Plan C, but everything needs to be based on our central idea of how to play football.”The beautiful game lives here. Stream top leagues, tournaments and teams.Sign up for ESPN+TUESDAY, DEC. 27• Bolton vs. Derby County (10 a.m. ET)• Reading vs. Swansea City (12 p.m. ET)• Burnley vs. Birmingham City (3 p.m. ET)THURSDAY, DEC. 29• QPR vs. Luton Town (1 p.m. ET)• Real Betis vs. Athletic Club (1 p.m. ET)• Millwall vs. Bristol City (2:40 p.m. ET)• Blackpool vs. Sheffield United (3 p.m. ET)• Atletico Madrid vs. Elche (3:20 p.m. ET)
Regarding Lewandowski, the argument goes like this. With him in the XI, this is a Barcelona era when a significant degree of the positional and passing style that is central to the Rinus Michels/Johan Cruyff/Pep Guardiola idea of how to play is sacrificed or reduced. On the other hand, the Polish star brings absolute mastery of how to produce often remarkable goals — particularly in tight situations.What gets sacrificed are the fluency of movement, the intricacy of build-up play, the rapid interchanging of positions and how creatively possession is used in the final third. Lewandowski’s associative and “build-up” play isn’t fantastic. And although he doesn’t hover around the penalty spot selfishly waiting to be served, he is, without question, an old fashioned “No. 9” whose best work is done either when he’s supplied with exceptional crosses into the box or when an opponent’s defensive line (often five or six men) is ragged.It’s wholly natural that, at 34, his athletic speed is declining. He won’t usually win a sprint if the ball’s played long into space behind a high defensive line and, one-on-one, he’s less likely to go past a young, strong, clever marker. Some evidence nudging us further towards these conclusions comes from his failure to score, or make a serious impact, in four of Barcelona’s five matches against Bayern Munich, Inter and Real Madrid. Those who watched how Inter (in Milan), Madrid and Bayern — especially at Camp Nou — nullified Lewandowski and prevented him from getting the quality of possession he now needs will have been prepared for the pallid, sluggish performances he gave for Poland during the World Cup.He remains brilliant, but he’s 34, human and no longer the rampaging colossus of his absolute peak.In Lewandowski’s absence, Xavi must use the time to get Barcelona back to their fluid, transition possession ways. David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty ImagesTo be clear, this is not a criticism of Lewandowski, whose professionalism, willingness to help Xavi on the training pitch, advice to teammates and tolerance of playing in a stumbling Bambi-like era of Barcelona’s development are all pretty remarkable. So too are his goal stats, which, although slightly down compared with his last two seasons with Bayern, look still more praiseworthy when you take into account how many new, young or ‘coming to the end’ players there are around him.A smooth-running juggernaut, this team is not.So, back to the Lewandowski argument. Without him in the XI, there’s a clear threat that Xavi’s team loses bite. If Barcelona look short of a cutting edge and scorn loads of goal chances in the three matches in which he’s absent, then few will care too much if they’ve played well … but lost or drawn. However, without him in the XI, against Viktoria Plzen, and for the last hour at Osasuna, Barcelona didn’t simply win but played outstandingly differently from at any other time this season.Lewandowski’s goals tend to come with Barcelona camped in the final third, prodding and probing over and again to try to open up an opponent that has deployed significant numbers to stifle and block. These are situations when, if the ball is lost, Barcelona are very susceptible to rapid, well-executed counter-attacks. There will often be only two at the back, which means Xavi’s team can be exposed positionally and for pace.When Lewandowski’s not playing, this is a team that can play through the lines far more rapidly, that can counter attack more quickly and can benefit from a constant rotation of Ansu Fati, Ferran Torres, Raphinha, Gavi and Ousmane Dembele at any given moment, and even Pedri arriving from deeper positions..Away in the Czech Republic earlier this season, Barcelona dragged Viktoria Plzen about ruthlessly and won a Champions League game when, given that Xavi used a young, inexperienced side, there was a threat of losing. It was vivacious and fluid, and Barca were hard to pin down.For the last hour against Osasuna, after Lewandowski’s sending off, in a match in which the hosts hadn’t simply led at the break but bullied Barcelona, pressed them and made it look as if this was a definite defeat in the making, LaLiga’s leaders played better with 10 men, were again noticeably more fluid and rapid and, significantly, turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win.play0:36Barcelona president Joan Laporta expresses his hopes that club legend and freshly crowned world champion Lionel Messi will play in Blaugrana colours again.There’s another point that Xavi can turn to his advantage instead of lamenting the Polish player’s three-game suspension.For the past 12 years, Lewandowski has benefitted from the Bundesliga’s “Winterpause” — a break from December to January or February meaning no league matches for anywhere between three to five weeks. The German league also plays a 34-match league season, the Spanish one 38. His absence, a three-match suspension that Barcelona appealed through every possible authority only to be told to stop making a fuss about nothing, means he has, and will continue to have, a mini Winterpause since the World Cup ended. In theory, he should be fitter and sharper for the Copa del Rey, the Supercup semifinal against Betis in Saudi Arabia and then for Manchester United in the Europa League.Laporta is an unashamed fan. “Lewandowski is one of the reasons we’ve been able to make our fans happy again. Of course he brings professionalism, experience and responsibility, but he’s a hell of a guy and he’s brought the club an air of glamour.” True, but there’s a counterpoint: this is a striker who significantly conditions how Xavi’s team plays, and around the corner, there is coming a time when Lewandowski — a short-term fix for a lack of power, class and experience while this squad was being rebuilt — won’t be there.While far from definitive, the next three LaLiga matches offer Xavi and his squad a glimpse of what the not-too-distant future will look like. Perhaps an attractive glimpse at that.