Arjen Robben was instrumental in Bayern Munich’s 5-1 Champions League drubbing of Arsenal on Wednesday night.
The Dutchman scored a trademark curling left-footed screamer after cutting inside from his starting position on the right wing. Despite a raft of injuries, Robben has been at the pinnacle of the European game for almost 20 years, and over time he has adapted his game dramatically without losing effectiveness.
The root of his game lies in the Eredivisie where he started out with Groningen, a relative minnow in the Dutch league compared to Ajax, Feyenoord and the team he would eventually join, PSV Eindhoven. His four full seasons in the Dutch league are a microcosm of his career as a whole: Player of the Year awards, league titles and injuries.
In 2004 he was courted by Manchester United, but after the Old Trafford club lowballed PSV Chelsea swooped in offering over double what the Reds had. Robben hit the ground running under Chelsea’s new manager Jose Mourinho, making the left wing position his own, and with Damien Duff in similar form on the right Chelsea were often unplayable. Mourinho’s men stormed to two league titles in a row with Robben instrumental to both successes. Then injuries started to have a major influence on his career.
Robben’s transfer to Real Madrid also saw him switch from the left to right flank. Injuries had taken their toll, the electric pace he once had was clearly diminished. This was when his game really began to evolve. Instead of tearing down the left flank past two or three defenders with just a couple of strides and finishing across the goalkeeper Robben specialised in cutting in from the right and curling the ball into the far post. As evidenced in the opening goal against Arsenal, it’s a technique he has truly mastered.
Arjen Robben has looked the same and scored the same type of goal for as long as we can remember. ???pic.twitter.com/7cHRIZTouG
— Marathonbet (@marathonbet) February 16, 2017
The area of his game that has most altered, however, is his dribbling. At Chelsea he was a direct dribbler, he relied on his speed rather than his close control. He’d knock the ball by his marker and just blow past them, he was almost unstoppable. When he lost that kind of pace and switched to the right he became more of a reactive dribbler. Instead of knocking the ball out of his feet at the first opportunity he would take several little touches, shifting the ball constantly and wait for a reaction from the defender.
Once the defender committed himself he would shift the other way, and usually this technique led to one of his trademark in-swinging left-footed curlers. But as we saw from Robert Lewandowski’s headed goal on Wednesday night this also opens up the play to an overlapping full back, in this case Phillip Lahm.
Robben has been one of the best players in the world for over a decade. At times he has been a divisive figure, mainly due to his fondness for diving.
However, there can be no denying his quality. He has been instrumental in two relatively weak Dutch sides finishing second and third place at the World Cup, and of his 17 full senior seasons in the game he has been league champion on nine occasions.
On Wednesday night Robben looked a completely different footballer to the frightening winger tearing down the left wing at Stamford Bridge.
His gait is different these days, he runs more upright and stiffer but, remarkably, he is no less effective. A true great of the modern game.
Stephen Vaughan, Pundit Arena