Arjen Robben: the dazzling Dutchman who defied the dark art of predictability
Whiskey, wine and cheese: they all get better with age. So too, it seems, does Arjen Robben. Having recently turned 31, the Dutch winger is currently enjoying the best years of his career at Bayern Munich, after relatively inconsistent spells with Chelsea and Real Madrid.
There were always hints, even in those early days at Stamford Bridge under Jose Mourinho, that the Dutchman could turn out to be one of the world’s greats, but injury and inconsistency frustrated the winger and fans alike. At Bayern, though, it has been a different story. In Bavaria, and particularly under Pep Guardiola, Robben has by and large maintained his fitness and gradually pushed his name onto the list of players who can truly be considered world-class.
United's loss, Chelsea's gain
The Robben of now is not too dissimilar to the one who first turned heads in the Netherlands. Groningen and PSV were mere stepping stones for a player who had big things expected of him from an early age.
Chelsea and Manchester United were among the first to take an interest, with the Stamford Bridge side pouncing after United’s bid was deemed derisory. Believed to be in the region of £5 million, it was laughed out of the room by then-PSV president Harry van Raaij, who stated it would only be enough to get “a shirt from Robben with his signature on it, nothing more”.
United’s loss was Chelsea’s gain. Robben played a starring, if a little disrupted role in Mourinho’s back-to-back title wins, though frequent spells on the sidelines prevented him from showing his real potential. When he was fit, the Dutchman dazzled. Playing in tandem with fellow winger Damien Duff, Robben would float from wing to wing, terrorising full-backs with his pace as Chelsea became the side to beat in England.
In his three seasons at Stamford Bridge, Robben netted 19 times in 105 games, notching 24 assists along the way. He also enjoyed the glory of two Premier League titles, an FA Cup triumph and a League Cup double.
Yet for many Chelsea fans, the winger's time at the club was a case of what might have been, with flashes of brilliance severely disrupted by injury. Given his inability to play more than a few games in a row, the £24m fee received for his transfer to Real Madrid was generally seen as a good deal, the Blues receiving double what they paid for him in the first place.
However, if the Spanish giants believed it would be different story in La Liga, they were very wrong. Again Robben endured spells of inconsistency, largely brought on by injury, and despite scoring 13 times in 65 games, and playing his part in a La Liga title triumph, the Dutchman’s time in Spain was frustrating.
To Robben’s credit, he wanted the time to put things right at Madrid, and the decision to move him on was one largely disputed by the player, fans and management alike.
But with Real looking to balance the books, Robben was sold for a loss at £20m. Indeed, Los Blancos may now be kicking themselves for selling a player who ridicules such a low fee on a weekly basis.
Down and up
At Bayern, Robben has never enjoyed his football more. When he arrived at the Allianz Arena in summer 2009, Bayern were managed by compatriot Louis van Gaal, who ultimately helped revitalise the career of a player who seemed destined to be ruined by injuries. If Mourinho honed the winger's talents, then it's Van Gaal who can be credited with using them to set Robben on the path to becoming the player he is today.
While there have been momentary phases of unhappiness for Robben in Bavaria, they have not tended to last long. Episodes include his physical falling out with team-mate Franck Ribery at half-time of a 2012 Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, and Bayern fans booing him after missing an extra-time penalty against Chelsea in that year's final. There was also a period where the Dutchman found himself out of favour with Jupp Heynckes, having to settle for a place on the bench. The nearly man again.
Yet as he did with the injuries and inconsistency which plagued his early career, Robben bounced back in style. In Germany, the 31-year-old has added to his burgeoning collection of successes, lifting three Bundesliga titles, three DFB-Pokal trophies, a Champions League (in which he netted the 89th-minute winner against Dortmund at Wembley) and the Super Cup, plus triumph in the Club World Cup. Only a complete disaster would prevent that list being increased this season.
Robben’s personal record speaks for itself. In his debut season he scored 23 times in 37 appearances, before adding another 32 goals in 53 games over the next two campaigns. In Bayern’s historic treble-winning season of 2013/14, he hit the net almost once every other game.
There is something of a division in Robben's time in Bavaria, however: pre- and post-Pep Guardiola, the master Spaniard who has helped preserve the Dutchman's blossoming career.
While Van Gaal may have reinvigorated him, Guardiola sparked the explosion which took Robben to the next level. The Barcelona legend's management, and keenness to get the ball wide to Robben at every opportunity, has given the player a chance to express himself in ways he hadn’t been able to before.
Robben has gone from being entirely predictable, to entirely predictable yet still impossible to stop: the Dutchman's trademark darts inside before shooting still bamboozle the most clued-up backlines.
Every player on the pitch knows what's about to happen, yet few have worked out how to prevent him from doing it, in the same way Lionel Messi has always seemed capable of beating any (and every) opponent.
For an illustration of how Guardiola has made Robben even better, it is worth returning to the numbers. Since Pep's arrival at Bayern at the beginning of the 2013/14 season, Robben has scored 40 goals in 71 games, while also creating another 27 for his team-mates – more assists than under any other club manager. In the current campaign he has 19 goals in 26 appearances, and notched another 10 assists.
They're monstrous numbers for a player who still remains, by and large, a winger. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to suggest that Guardiola has done for Robben what he did for Messi at Barcelona.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Robben acknowledged that he has come “quite a long way” in the last 18 months. But that is an understatement. His form in 2014 was enough to see him finish fourth in the Ballon d’Or vote, an impressive position ahead of several World Cup-winning German stars.
Last season was considered by many to have been Robben’s best ever, with his domestic progress also being carried onto the international stage. Robben was Holland’s leading light at the 2014 World Cup as something of a centre-forward, and was instrumental in the 5-1 destruction of Spain, scoring twice.
Few will forget the sight of the winger making Sergio Ramos, one of the world’s best defenders, look so foolish as he outpaced and turned the Real Madrid stopper for his second and Holland’s fifth goal.
This year only Wolfsburg's Kevin De Bruyne has been able to match his feats at domestic level. Robben currently leads the goalscoring charts in the Bundesliga with 17, in a competition he averages a goal every 92 minutes in this season. The Bundesliga is one thing, but if Robben can help steer Bayern to European glory, then Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi's hogging of the top table might be interrupted.
"I am in love with Robben," declared Guardiola last month. Perhaps it's time that we all did the same.
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