Player Focus: Relentless Robben continuing Bayern Munich development under Pep Guardiola
Cast your thoughts back to the 2014 World Cup, specifically the last-16 stage. Mexico were minutes away from landing a memorable 1-0 win over the Netherlands to secure a place in the quarter-finals of football's elite competition for the first time in 28 years.
With 2 minutes of normal time to go Wesley Sneijder equalised for the Oranje before, with the game destined for extra time, Arjen Robben was fouled by Rafael Márquez in the penalty box. Many claimed the Dutchman had dived to gain his side the advantage, but despite the protests of the Mexico players; referee Pedro Proença stuck by his choice to point to the spot. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar kept his cool in Fortaleza to fire past Guillermo Ochoa and break Mexican hearts.
In the aftermath of the defeat, Robben was castigated for his decision to go to ground so easily, though the criticism received did not affect his performances in Brazil. Only Lionel Messi (8.52) gained a better WhoScored rating than the Dutchman (8.37) in South America. The competition arguably marked a return to greatness for the experienced wideman - at least in the wider public opinion - given that Robben was reported to be on his way out of Bayern on the back of Pep Guardiola’s appointment at the Allianz Arena 12 months prior to Brazil 2014. Instead, though, Robben has become the Spaniard’s most potent attacking threat.
As expected, Bayern currently top Germany’s top-tier having taken 61 points of a possible 72 this season. Much of that has been down to the exploits of Robben. Only Alexander Meier (18) has netted more league goals this term than the 31-year-old attacker (17). Robben’s WhoScored rating (8.58) is bettered only by Lionel Messi (8.81) in Europe’s top 5 leagues this campaign. To put it bluntly, he is, like a fine wine, maturing with age. Many would have him in the top bracket of footballers currently plying their trade on the continent, mentioning him in the same breath as Messi and Ballon d’Or 2014 winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
Guardiola deserves ample credit for the attacker’s return to the fore. Bayern’s 2013 Champions League win under Jupp Heynckes was expected to be the club’s latest peak in their illustrious history, with Robben scoring the decisive goal at Wembley against fierce rivals Borussia Dortmund. Motivating the players to ensure a repeat of that success was always going to be easier said than done, but Guardiola has earned praise for maintaining, and perhaps bettering, a level of excellence in the displays of the German side, last season's semi-final Champions League defeat to Real Madrid aside.
The stats alone show how much more influential Robben has become in Bayern’s attack. His 17 league goals is already his most in a single league season since signing for the German side in 2009 and with 10 games of the campaign remaining, the Netherlands international is expected to smash through the 20-goal barrier sooner rather than later.
His average number of shots per game has risen substantially this season (4.4) from last (2.7), with Guardiola evidently challenging Robben to test the opposition goalkeeper whenever the chance presents itself. This has resulted in a variation in the way he nets. In his 6 seasons in Germany, Robben has scored 6 headed goals in the league, 3 of which have come this campaign, as he continues to crop up in positions he perhaps would not have done in previous seasons.
Perhaps his inclination to cut onto his left foot is a minor critique, but given 12 of his 17 league goals have been scored with his favoured foot, why attempt to fix what is clearly not broken? The same can be said for Robben’s ability to run with the ball, with ‘dribbling’ unsurprisingly a WhoScored strength of his.
Picking up possession on the right flank, the Dutchman will often cut inside and while this technique is easy to read, Robben has perfected his approach, which makes it nigh-on impossible to stop when he gains a head of steam. His average number of dribbles per game this season (4.8) is at its highest during his 6 seasons in the Bundesliga and has progressively risen over the last 3 campaigns, from 2.0 per game during Heynckes’ final season at the Allianz helm to 3.0 per match during Guardiola’s first term in charge of Bayern.
In the Bundesliga, this season, only Karim Bellarabi (5.4) is averaging more dribbles per game than Robben. Furthermore, only Kevin De Bruyne (3.1), Marco Reus and Zlatko Junuzovic (both 2.6) are averaging more key passes game (2.5). This isn’t just mindless running with the ball - there is an end product to the Dutchman’s game, with his 7 assists bettered only by the aforementioned De Bruyne (15) and Junuzovic (9).
Robben was 29 years of age when Guardiola took charge of the Bavarian giants over 18 months ago and there was, of course, the concern that the former Chelsea and Real Madrid star would struggle to adapt to the strict demands of the Spaniard. ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ could not be less applicable to Robben, however.
Granted, his style of play is not too dissimilar to that which earned him his reputation when he arrived at Stamford Bridge at the beginning of the Roman Abramovich era in West London. However, Guardiola has urged Robben to become more prominent in the final third.
Rather than wait for the ball to come to him, the Dutchman is now charged with actively seeking possession in order to exert himself. An average of 75.5 touches per league game this season has risen significantly from 50.1. Cutting inside and linking up with those in more central attacking positions has helped Robben become more unpredictable closer to the goal. The easy option to take following Guardiola’s appointment would have been to accept that he is an out-and-out winger, but Robben has instead strived to improve his all-around game too, at least to an extent, become Bayern’s equivalent of the Messi that Guardiola managed during his time at Barcelona between 2008 and 2012.
Tonight, Bayern face Shakhtar Donetsk with a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League at stake. The German side were held to a 0-0 draw in Ukraine last month, but will be confident of gaining the right result on home turf. With Robben continuing to impress, one feels he has a key role to play at the Allianz Arena against the Ukrainians in order for Bayern to exercise last season’s demons and lift their second Champions League title in three years.
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