If, as a famous showbiz celebrity once said, “points make prizes” in TV game shows, in football it’s goals that deliver trophies. That’s why so many of the clubs to have dominated European football across the decades have numbered a top marksman among their players as they accumulated silverware. These are the players that make the difference. In the biggest games, they score the important goals, and plenty of them. The great Real Madrid sides of the late 1950s had Di Stefano, Benfica had Eusebio, Ajax had Cruyff and Milan had Van Basten.
Very few clubs, though, can look back over their history and celebrate two occasions where their domestic and European dominance has been powered by the potent force of one of the world’s most efficient goal scorers. Bayern Munich however, can claim membership to that most exclusive of clubs. In the late 1960s and across the following decade, Gerd Müller, ‘Der Bomber’, was the sharpest of cutting edges that saw the club slice through opposition defences with merciless efficiency.
Thirty years after Müller hung up his boots, another striker, albeit of a different type took up the mantle when Polish striker Robert Lewandowski joined Die Roten from Borussia Dortmund. As fate would have it, neither striker cost the club a fee. Müller moved to the Bavarian club from minor club 1861 Nördlingen in 1964 and Lewandowski joined on a free transfer after his contract at Dortmund had expired. The old saying that anything that costs nowt is worth nowt, could hardly ever have been wider of the mark as both players would go on to achieve legendary status with Bayern Munich!
When a club has had two such globally acclaimed marksmen in their squads, over the years, inevitably debate ensues as to which of these outstanding talents best served the club. While such things are often useful topics for discussion over a few beers with diverse opinions flowing as freely as the alcohol, undisputed conclusions may be less easy to reach. Pursuing a definitive answer is as elusive as a clean sheet attained against either of these forwards but, let’s see take a look at each of their records and see what we think. There are many similarities and just as many differences between the two forwards to clarify and, also perhaps, confuse, the issue. At the end of this, you may not agree with my conclusion, but at least it’ll feed into the debate.
Somewhat fittingly for a player who would become a legend with region’s most famous club, Gerd Müller was born in Bavaria, just over a couple of months after the end of World War Two. He was born and raised in the town of Nördlingen, part of the Donau-Ries district, in Swabia, and joined Bayern after playing with local club, TSV 1861 Nördlingen in the Bezirksliga Schwaben league.
Scoring more than 50 goals in a shade over 30 games was enough to bring the teenager to the attention of Bayern, who were then playing in the second tier Regionalliga Süd of the German league pyramid. There had also been an opportunity at the time to sign for 1860 Munich, who were in the Bundesliga, and the top club in Munich at the time. Instead, the youngster opted for red, rather than blue, as joining the lower league club would give him a greater opportunity of breaking into the first team. It was a momentous decision for all concerned and, across the next 15 years, his goals would take the club from the relative obscurity of second tier domestic competition, to the pinnacle of European club football domination.
Bayern already had the nucleus of the team who would later deliver Bayern’s their most successful era. When Müller, Sepp Maier and Franz Beckenbauer were already at the club and the newcomer’s goals would light the blue touchpaper, igniting the legendary period of success. In his first term, Müller scored 33 league goals in just 26 appearances, as Bayern powered to the top of the table scoring 146 times in the process. The next highest total was 87. They then topped their Promotion Play-Off group to achieve promotion to the Bundesliga. The German top tier didn’t know what was about to hit them.
Despite what would later seem like a restrained goal tally of 16 across all competitions, in his first season at German domestic football’s highest level Müller and team-mates lifted the DFB-Pokel to announce their arrival, and then retained the trophy the following year as Müller’s goals total rose to 43 in 45 appearances. Across the next couple of seasons, those goal tallies were 30 and then 37 as Bayern first took the league title and then lifted the DFB-Pokel again.
The 1969-70 was a rare trophy-less season for Die Roten but, when Müller returned from the 1970 World Cup in Mexico where he had underscored his ability by winning the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer with ten strikes, three ahead of Brazil’s Jairzinho, the next few seasons would see a stratospheric level of success for the club and goalscoring by Müller. Thirty-nine goals and another DFB-Pokel triumph in the next season were merely the hors d’oeuvres for what would follow.
In 1971-72, Bayern would win the first of three successive Bundesliga trophies, and Müller would break the Bundesliga single season scoring record, netting 40 times in 34 games. It’s a record that stood for almost 50 years, until a certain Polish striker, playing for the same club, usurped it in the 2020-21 season. If goals were the most precious of footballing currencies, Müller’s bank was overflowing the following year. He scored 66 goals across all competitions in 49 games for the club. Eleven of those strikes came in the European Cup when, despite Müller being the competitions top scorer with 11 goals. They would count for nothing in the end though. Bayern fell to reigning champions Ajax after a humbling 4-0 defeat in Amsterdam. The club would only have to endure a brief wait to reach Europe’s top table though.
If volume was the key in that season, during the one that followed it would be the value of each strike that was just as important. Once more the Bundesliga title was secured and this time, with Ajax’s reign crumbling as they were eliminated from the European Cup by the Bulgarians of CSKA, the throne as kings of Europe was vacated. Bayern would claim that seat by defeating Atlético Madrid in Brussels Heysel Stadium. Müller would score twice in the 4-0 victory, taking his tournament total to eight, and become top scorer once again.
It was a season of great triumph for Müller on the international scene as well. That summer West Germany would win the World Cup, defeating the brilliant Oranje side of Cruyff, et al in the final played at Bayern’s own Olympiastadion and it was the Bayern striker who scored the winning goal. It took his total of goals in World Cup Finals to 14, a record at the time and was the last of 68 goals for the Mannschaft, accumulated in just 62 games in the national team across eight years.
He would again be top scorer in the European Cup the following season, scoring five goals as the trophy was retained and would be again in 1975-76. There was one more step for Bayern to take in order to establish themselves as the top football club on the planet and they achieved that the following season, defeating South American champions Cruzeiro of Brazil. It was, of course, Müller who broke the resistance of the Brazilians in the home leg, scoring after 80 minutes before a second goal rounded out the win. A goalless draw in Brazil confirmed Bayern’s status. It would be Der Bomber’s final trophy with the club, before retiring after the 1979-80 season.
Some would argue that Müller was fortunate that for much of his time with the club, Bayern were the dominant force not only in German football, but also in European competition, and that much of his success was due to that. It’s perhaps an argument that has some merit, but also many flaws. The counter logic is that it was very much the case that Müller’s goals fuelled the success and, had he not have been there, perhaps that era may not have materialised. That same argument however, may apply more to the success that Robert Lewandowski achieved with Bayern.
In contrast to Müller’s arrival at Bayern as a promising but unproven teenager, Lewandowski was very much the finished article when he joined the club. The Pole had played for five years in his native league, before his Lech Poznań haul of 24 goals in 34 games across the 2009-10 season convinced Borussia Dortmund to lay out the relatively meagre fee of €4.5 million to take him to the Bundesliga.
In four seasons at the Westfalenstadion a haul of 103 goals in 107 games would make him the hottest of hot properties among Europe’s elite goal scorers and his decision to allow the contract with the club to run down meant that he could sign a pre-contract agreement with Bayern in January 2014 and join the club at the end of the2014-15 season. Bayern had acquired another legendary striker without having to lay out the millions of euros that their talents surely would deserve.
Whereas Müller had joined a club that couldn’t claim to be the best in Munich, let alone in Germany or across Europe, when Lewandowski moved, the club were not only the reigning German champions and cup holders, but had won the Bundesliga title in nine of the seasons since the turn of the century and lifted eight DFB-Pokels in the same period and won the Champions League two seasons earlier. It’s an arguable point that Lewandowski had the easier task assuming iconic status with a dominant Bayern than Müller did with a struggling one. Equally however, it could be argued that it was far easier for Müller to establish himself in a second-tier team, and remember, he purposely chose Bayern on over 1960 Munich for that precise reason, than for Lewandowski to risk his growing reputation by joining a club where his inclusion in the team would be put to the sternest of tests.
Sure enough, much as was the case with Müller, the Polish striker’s first season with the club was probably best described as a steady start, rather than a spectacular one, but it would provide a solid base to build outstanding success upon. From that season onwards, Bayern would retain the German league title every year, up to and including the recently completed 2020-21 season, with precious little suggestion of that situation changing any time soon.
Lewandowski’s goals would be a key element in that success and, after his initial season brought a mere 17 Bundesliga goals in 31 appearances, 186 goals in 189 Bundesliga appearances made him the most prolific striker in Germany. Three DFB-Pokels were also secured, together with four DFL-Supercup, a UEFA Super cup and FIFA Club World Cup. In 2019-20 season though as the Covid pandemic forced a radically different conclusion to the format of the Champions League conclusion, Bayern reclaimed their crown as the best club in Europe winning the trophy in splendid isolation at an empty Estádio da Luz, Lisbon against Paris Saint-Germain. To echo, or arguably surpass, Müller previous exploits in the same competition, Lewandowski was the tournament’s top scorer, and his total of 14 topped any of Müller’s in previous seasons.
Last season, Lewandowski also lowered the flag on another of Müller’s achievements. The record of 40 Bundesliga goals in a season had stood unchallenged for almost half a century but, when Bayern achieved their 51st league title last season, Lewandowski contribution of 41 goals in just 29 Bundesliga outings finally eclipsed that mark. To have achieved such a tally at all is truly remarkable. To have done in a mere 29 games, when it had taken Müller five games more to score one goal less, elevates it to the level of legendary status, as the player himself acknowledged. “I don’t fully realize it yet. Of course, I am very proud and happy but I think it will only get through to me with time … I must admit that I thought it was impossible to do.”
To look back on the Bayern careers of the two strikers is both illuminating, and provides conclusive evidence that each was an outstanding striker and yet, perhaps due to the differing eras in which they played, less than fully helpful, and a more prosaic analysis looking at broad statistics may be more productive.
Gerd Müller was a one-club man once he had left his home town club and played in Bayern red for 15 years. In that time, he scored 563 goals for the club, averaging 37.53 per year. Comparing goals to games ratios, those 563 goals came in 605 appearances, equating to 0.93 per game. It’s a highly impressive series of statistics, especially when considering that many of those goals were scored in European football’s premier club competition, but Lewandowski’s figures hardly pale by comparison.
The Polish striker will be 33 by the time the new season gets under and may still have a few years – and goals – remaining at the height of his goalscoring powers but, looking at the statistics to date, the difference to those of Müller, albeit over a much shorter period of time are also highly impressive. In seven seasons with the club, Lewandowski has netted 294 goals, averaging 34.57 strikes per twelve months’ period. It’s a total that stacks up slightly behind that of Müller, but not by a wide margin. Looking at goals per game, the difference is even smaller. Across appearances, those 294 goals average out at 0.89. In purely ‘goals as gold’ Müller’s record therefore shines slightly brighter, but Lewandowski has won more tournaments than his predecessor.
Seven Bundesliga titles, three DFB-Pokels and four DFL-Supercups means he has won 14 domestic trophies and single triumphs in the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup raise that tally to 17. Plus, of course, these have been achieved in less than half the number of seasons that Müller was with the club. On the other hand, while Müller’s total of four Bundesliga titles and the same number of DFB-Pokel’s, totalling eight, is behind Lewandowski’s domestic haul, his three European Cups and Intercontinental Cup win outstrip the Pole’s wider titles. Plus, of course, if due weight is given to those European trophies, Müller’s record perhaps even comes out on top, albeit that they took eight seasons more to accumulate.
their levels of success, depending on how they are considered, may suggest a great number of similarities between Gerd Müller and Robert Lewandowski, but perhaps their greatest difference, is in the style of play. Der Bomber was the consummate penalty area predator. He was short, with that low centre of gravity often gifted to the world’s outstanding footballers and an exquisite sense of balance, speed of thought and action that allowed him to maintain poise and position where others would have fallen away. Added to that, he had that quintessential instinct to be in the right place at the right time to finish of a move. So many of his goals were tap ins, or finishes from inside the six-yard box, that could suggest a large slice of fortune consistently favoured him, but that would be to ignore the skill that put him in such deadly scenarios.
Contrastingly, Lewandowski is probably the better all-round footballer, with all the attributes required to successfully lead an attack. He’s tall, strong, quick enough, with the game intelligence to seek out opportunities and proficiency with both feet and head to execute them efficiently. Where he perhaps eclipses Müller is in his ability to also be a link for his team-mates, using his physical presence to hold up play and bring team-mates into the game. There aren’t any definitive statistics to support the assertion, but it isn’t difficult to assume that Lewandowski would seriously outweigh any numbers of Müller, when it comes to assessing the ‘assists’ provided to team-mates for their goals.
Comparing players across eras when they played with different team-mates, against different opponents often in different competitions and at different times of a club’s development is akin to the Labours of Sisyphus. Just when you think you have one point established, it’s called into question, and the boulder rolls back down the hill. Both Müller and Lewandowski were, and are, outstanding exponents of the art of goalscoring, albeit in different ways, but it would be shallow and somewhat callow to leave the argument there, without pinning my colours to the mast.
So, in the interest of setting myself up for contradiction, I’m going to say that the exploits of Gerd Müller, joining a club in the second tier, firing them to promotion, and then on to domestic and continental domination outweighs the achievements of Robert Lewandowski, albeit by a small margin, and that’s not taking into account his exploits on the international stage where Lewandowski’s aspirations have perhaps been compromised by playing for a less competitive country in football’s major competitions. So, there we go, I’d put Müller, slightly ahead. But, what do I know? Over to you.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Bayern Munich’ magazine from These Football Times).