Arjen Robben key to Bayern success
Ten years ago, a few friends and I found ourselves at a loose end in the nondescript Dutch town of Waalwijk. It was a Friday and we noticed from a local paper that the local side, RKC, was playing PSV Eindhoven that night so we went along and bought tickets.
We ended up standing alongside a group of South Koreans who remained almost entirely silent throughout before erupting when, midway through the second half, the 21-year-old Park Ji-Sung came on to make his debut for PSV. Mateja Kezman, then a prolific Yugoslavia international (and later one of the many center forwards to flop at Chelsea), scored the only goal of the game. But the outstanding player was the hunched, balding figure on the left flank. He looked about 50, shuffled rather than ran, and had no obvious tricks. But he beat his defender again and again.
It was a cruelly unequal contest, deft matador against cumbersome bull, but the brilliance of the winger was mesmerizing. You almost stopped caring about the rest of the game and simply wanted the ball to end up on that flank, so you could see the stooped figure again twitch a shoulder and drift by the defender, first to the left, then to the right, leaving him kicking hopelessly and in increasing frustration at air. Weirdly, five years later, hunched winger and clumsy full-back became team-mates at Chelsea, for the fullback was Khalid Boulahrouz and the winger was, of course, Arjen Robben.
It still comes as something of a shock to find that Robben had just turned 18 when I first saw him. In appearance and demeanor, he seemed much older as though an old man had cast aside his stick to hobble out for one last game. He has perhaps filled out a little since then, but even now, after winning league titles in four countries, collecting a silver medal at the World Cup and playing on the losing side in the 2010 Champions League final, it still comes as a jolt to find how old he actually is. At 28, he should be at the peak of his powers, but the temptation is always to add six or seven years to that and assume that this represents one last season.
His importance to Bayern can hardly be overstated. He and, to a lesser extent, Franck Ribery – "Robbery" as the duo are known in tandem – are the difference between Bayern being an ordinary, unspectacular side and being potential Champions League winners. Robben can be a frustrating presence and there are so many rumors of him being the source of dressing-room disharmony that you feel there must be some substance to them – even if that means nothing more than he is a loner with a typically Dutch forthrightness when it comes to tactical discussions.
But in a world in which traditional wingers are increasingly being replaced by wide forwards who see their role as being less about creating than scoring, Robben is a delightful throwback. In his ability to play on either flank, either fulfilling the classic winger’s role of flinging in crosses for center forwards or as a modern inverted winger who looks to cut inside and generate shooting opportunities, and in his weirdly unathletic gait (he is quick, but he somehow doesn’t look it) he resembles perhaps the last of the great English wingers, Chris Waddle.
On song, he is as effective as anybody in the world and it’s no coincidence that Bayern’s recent surge of form – it has won six and drawn one of its last seven games, scoring seven twice and six once – has coincided with Robben’s return to form after yet another injury-hit season. He scored two – the first after a thrillingly direct burst from half way - and set up the other in Holland’s 3-2 friendly win over England at Wembley. He scored two in the 7-1 win over Hoffenheim that signaled the start of this Bayern rally, two in the 7-0 victory over Basel as Bayern swept aside a 1-0 first-leg deficit, a hat-trick in the 6-0 win away at Hertha Berlin. He set up Toni Kroos’s opener with a characteristic backheel in the 2-1 win over Hannover, scored the second in Bayern’s comfortable victory over Marseille in the away leg of the Champions league quarterfinal, and then got the only goal against FC Nurnberg on Saturday as Bayern capitalized on Borussia Dortmund’s bizarre 4-4 draw against Stuttgart to pull to within three points of the leaders.
Bayern began the season superbly, winning 11 of its first 12 games in all competitions, conceding just a single goal in doing so. When it outplayed Manchester City at the Allianz Arena, it seemed realistic to suggest that with English clubs faltering and the Italian giants as inconsistent as ever, that Bayern was the only side that could challenge Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Champions League. But then came a dire run of form that saw it win only 14 of its next 24 matches in all competitions. The flaws that provoked that stutter – defensive weaknesses, the Jekyll and Hyde performances of Thomas Muller and Mario Gomes, the strangely brittle mental state that means Bayern tends to panic if it doesn't score the first goal of a game – all remain and, logically, should prevent them from winning the Bundesliga and Champions League.
But Bayern has the advantage of potentially playing the Champions League final in its own stadium. It will surely, finish off the quarterfinal at home to Marseille on Tuesday and will then, almost certainly, face Real Madrid in the semifinal. If Robben maintains this form, if he can conjure a rabbit from the hat as he did against Fiorentina and Manchester United in Bayern’s run to the final in 2010, then that tie is winnable – particularly if Robben is inspired against his former club. And after that, in a one-off tie in the Allianz Arena, anything is possible. The form of Robben and, to a lesser extent, Ribery, may only be papering over the cracks, but for the moment it is doing so highly effectively.