Discerning what makes a great player tick is a nigh-on impossible task. How do you make sense of Messi’s magic? How do you dismantle Ronaldo’s phenomena into nuts and bolts? Getting to grips with Luka Modric meanwhile requires a PHD in trigonometry with a foundation course in philosophy thrown in.
Understanding Arjen Robben, however, was and is pretty simple because there’s one move, executed time and time and time again. Opposition full-backs know it’s coming. Everybody in the stadium knows it’s coming. Only one man knows when though. Which split second.
That is not to say of course that the flying winger is a one-trick-pony, far from it. You don’t win eleven league titles across four countries and finish in the reckoning for the Ballon d’Or unless there is something special and multifarious about you and, in Robben’s case, his blistering speed has always exhilarated while his touch and clever, sharp movement continues to impress. “He’s world class. I can only encourage every young player to watch and learn from him”. So said Bayern Munich’s sporting director Matthias Sammer in 2014 and it would take a very begrudging soul to disagree.
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That move though: it would be entirely disingenuous to laud the sustained brilliance of the boy from Bedum over two decades without focusing on it. It would be as remiss as committing lots of words to Neil Armstrong and not mentioning the moon.
You know the move. You’re picturing it right now aren’t you? Whether it’s in the club colours of Groningen, PSV, Chelsea, Real Madrid or Bayern or burning bright for Oranje on the international stage, the consummate wide-man has made a career out of enacting it to perfection, scampering down the right; drawing a defender to either commit or at least get close, then cutting inside onto his divine left foot.
On occasion he will float an angled delivery for a Van Persie or Lewandowski to take full advantage of. Mostly though he will curl a shot into the far corner and mostly too he will score. For the German giants alone he has scored 126 times from 278 appearances and it’s not an exaggeration to estimate that 90% of these came from his signature cut-back-and-curl.
So familiar is the sight that it’s become almost trademarked – indeed, in France sashaying in from the right is widely termed ‘Le Robben’ – and so impactful has it been that it’s partly responsible for the trend to have inverted wingers in the modern era yet, in truth, it’s a ruse as old as the hills.
The great Brazilian Garrincha was masterful at dropping his shoulder as too was Sir Stanley Matthews, each delighting in wrong-footing defenders; each somehow making the predictable unpredictable. And that ultimately is what amazes about such players. While Messi and others confound with their unfathomable mysteries, Robben performs his magic with sleeves rolled up and not a prop to be seen. He could even tell you what he’s planning to do before he does it and moments later another hapless victim would be stupefied. That borders on witchcraft.
Arjen Robben signed for Chelsea in the summer of 2004 in a deal worth £12 million, with the newly flush Blues beating off the advances of Manchester United, who bid so low that PSV’s chairman claimed it would only get them an autographed shirt. Chelsea won the league that year, as comfortably as any side can, and then Jose Mourinho’s men repeated the feat the following season too. In both campaigns injuries meant the Dutch star wasn’t a mainstay yet, so bamboozling were his jet-heeled displays, he is remembered as an integral figure in those glory years, remaining beloved by the Bridge faithful even to the present day.
In his debut campaign Robben hit the ground running from the off, forming a formidable wing alliance with Damien Duff that Drogba and Gudjohnsen immensely benefited from and it’s during this intoxicating introduction that we find his slice of genius.
The date is November 13th 2004 and Chelsea are at a packed out Craven Cottage in an evening fixture they need to win in order to reclaim the Premier League summit. Frank Lampard had opened proceedings in the first period but now Papa Bouba Diop has equalised and the Fulham crowd are upping the decibels in this always fiercely contested derby. Enter stage right – to naturally drift to stage left – Arjen Robben.
The ball falls to his feet from a half-clearance as the away side camp on the edge of Fulham’s box and the 20-year-old’s first touch queues up a left footed strike. Two defenders buy it wholesale and go to ground, desperately trying to block the incoming shot but Robben is cuter and turns right leaving them sprawled on the turf and completely out of the picture. Now a right-footed hit is lined up from just inside the penalty area and Zat Knight is obviously not yet fully clued up the one of the most famous moves in world football because he actually steps across thinking this could conceivably happen. Of course it does not. Of course, Robben cuts inside onto his left but with an admittedly slightly heavy touch that lures in Moritz Volz. Nimble footwork soon deals with that and the fine individual goal is made all the more picturesque by the German’s second attempt to reach the ball when off-balance. It’s a sort of despairing swan-dive.
Four players have now been duped inside a tight area of space and three lie prostate on the deck. The shot when it comes is clinical and low, the time for cuteness passed.
This summer the wide-man capped 96 times by Holland is set to leave Bayern after ten trophy-laden years and there is a realistic chance that he won’t take a step down through the levels but instead retire. It will be a sad day for football, so familiar have his runs been, so familiar has he been.
At least when that time comes, and the boots are put away for good, Arjen Robben might bless us with an explanation, on how he pulled off a career’s worth of sorcery in plain sight.