The captain’s armband looked out of place at first, Arjen Robben taking over for the suspended Robin van Persie in Holland’s win over Chile on Monday night. But there’s a completion about Robben now, one that made the captaincy fitting at this stage of his career.
Robben has been one of this World Cup’s best performers. It was always to be expected considering his talent, but he’s been one of the standout players while also shouldering the responsibility of helping to lead a relatively young and inexperienced team through the tournament.
It’s a far cry from what we saw from the Bayern Munich winger two years ago at the European Championship, storming off after being substituted in a game against Germany, choosing to walk round the pitch and past his supporters rather than crossing the field, as is customary.
In a way that incident became something of a turning point for the Dutchman. His quality as a player is well-known, but so too is his reputation for selfishness and petulance.
There were questions raised about Robben’s character in big games, having lost in the final of World Cup 2010 to Spain after having a chance to seal the win for Holland. Against Chelsea in the Champions League final, he missed a penalty awarded to Bayern during extra-time, forcing a shoot-out, which the Bavarians lost.
Another issue many in the football community have with Robben is the ease with which he goes to ground, particularly in the opposition penalty area. Arsene Wenger for one wasn’t fooled by the Dutchman, with both having an exchange of words during Bayern’s 2-0 win over Arsenal at the Emirates last season.
But this World Cup has been another impressive step forward for Robben. Few are accustomed to seeing the winger line up as a centre-forward, as he did against Spain and Australia. He doesn’t exactly fit the criteria, importantly being extremely reliant on his left foot, while he doesn’t have the physical stature normally associated with modern centre-forwards.
But it was a success for Louis van Gaal, deploying Robben alongside Robin van Persie as a means to exploit space behind opposition defences and maximise on the creativity of both van Persie and Wesley Sneijder. Three goals across both of Holland’s opening games suggests there could be a future for Robben in that role.
Where Robben was once wasteful in major finals, he’s now been a vital part of Bayern’s successes over the past two seasons. Against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final in London, he scored the winner in the 89th minute. In the German Cup final against the same opposition this past season, he scored the first of Bayern’s two goals, as they completed the domestic double in Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge.
And the former Barcelona coach has held Robben in high regard for much of the campaign, with Guardiola talking up his love for the Dutchman and citing his professionalism through the season.
Louis van Gaal will naturally be contemplating a bid for the Bayern winger when he takes on domestic coaching duties later this summer, and it would be more than understandable for Manchester United fans to want to see the incredibly in-form Dutchman arrive at Old Trafford during this transfer window.
But this is a player who looks to be defying his age, playing some of the best football of his career. The pace hasn’t gone and he’s learning new tricks by adapting to different positions on the field.
For Holland, the one-two punch of Robben and van Persie is the appropriate response to the disaster of Euro 2012 and the criticism levelled at the Dutch for their performance against Spain in South Africa.