"When something works, you just keep going": Arjen Robben on his big move
In March, a grainy video surfaced showing a hirsute 15-year-old Arjen Robben in a baggy FC Groningen shirt, cheerily performing his "Magic Robben-Trick" for the camera. Alas, there's nothing of the customary angled run on the right flanks, the strangely stiff elbows and wrists, the drop of the shoulder, the cut inside on his left or the curled shot into the far corner. Teenage Robben's "magic" was more prosaic. The clip sees him juggling a ball behind his standing leg.
The Dutch winger and his preferred way of scoring goals have become so synonymous, it's hard to believe that he only developed his signature move eight years ago, following three club transfers (from Groningen to PSV Eindhoven, Chelsea and Real Madrid) and several managerial changes.
It was Real Madrid manager Juande Ramos who first regularly positioned the left-footed Robben as an "inverted winger" on the right flank during his short-lived spell at the Bernabeu between December 2008 and May 2009. Robben scored six goals in his new role, having netted only once before the switch. But he still found him surplus to requirements in the summer; president Florentino Perez took charge of the club once more and cleared out most of the big-name signings by his predecessor, Ramon Calderon.
The "Robben move" only became widely talked about after his €25 million transfer to Bayern Munich in August 2009, where he joined up with compatriot Louis van Gaal. An earlier experiment to field French attacking midfielder Franck Ribéry (another "inverted winger") in the No.10 role had failed, forcing van Gaal to put Ribéry back out wide and look for a player to do a similar job on the right.
Bayern were not used to so much emphasis on wing play at the time. Robben's arrival was greeted with scepticism about his fitness and complaints that the club had neglected to buy a more central figure to shape their attacking game. Even Philipp Lahm publicly wondered, in a brutally honest Suddeutsche Zeitung interview in November of that year, whether Bayern's acquisition of the Dutchman was truly meant to facilitate a strategic switch to a 4-3-3 system or merely the latest example of the club buying another big-name player and worrying about his deployment later.
General manager Uli Hoeness had long coveted Robben, and within a few months, all doubts were allayed.
Van Gaal's positional game, the "discovery" of Bastian Schweinsteiger as a linchpin in central midfield and the stratospheric rise of Thomas Muller as a free-spirited, self-styled Raumdeuter ("space interpreter") lifted Bayern collectively to a new level, with Robben as the key player. He scored 23 goals in all competitions to take the Reds to a domestic double and first Champions League final in nine years. Among his exploits was a wonder goal that featured an extended version of his trademark move.
Against Schalke 04 in the semifinal of the DFB Pokal, in March 2010, he sprinted down the right flank from the halfway line, cut inside a couple of metres before the end of the pitch, slalomed around a couple of Schalke players and curled a shot into the Royal Blues' net. The impact of the strike was magnified by its timing: S04 and Bayern had played out a dull, goalless draw before Robben lit up the Veltins Arena with eight minutes to go in extra time.
"His pace was enormous," said Schalke captain Heiko Westermann. "We should have challenged him as he received the ball [60 metres earlier]." Karl-Heinz Rummenigge called the goal "world class." Nobody disagreed.
Countless other defenders have met Westermann's fate in the ensuing years; there's a nice show reel to be found here. Robben's fragile hamstrings and groin, plus a variety of smaller complaints, have kept him out for a total of 16 months since going to Bayern, but his classic ploy has lost none of its potency. You would think that opponents would have wised up to the move right now, but they seem as unable as ever to do anything against it. In mid-December, he scored in such typical fashion against VfL Wolfsburg's Ricardo Rodriguez, who's considered one of the Bundesliga's best left-backs.
"Yes, it's a weapon," Robben told ESPN FC in an interview in Munich last week. "When something works, you just keep going. But I'm not the right person to explain why it works."
One of the reasons left-backs don't like to play against "inverted wingers" is because they are happier to tackle with their left leg, defending the flank from "inside out" as it were. Robben's diagonal run inside forces them onto the wrong foot. More important is the speed of his execution. Robben can sometimes be seen taking a step back before he receives a pass in order to pick up speed in advance of his run with the ball. That technique allows him to bypass flat-footed opponents. At the 2014 World Cup, the Dutchman registered 37 km/h: not bad for a 30-year-old.
The second key element is the swiftness of his final turn inside. Defenders are aware that it's likely to come but still can't keep up. A study of the Robben move by Shanti Ganesh, a specialist in cognitive neuroscience at Radboud University in Nijmegen, discovered that a defender's instinctive move in parallel with Robben's penultimate move to the outside cannot be corrected in time for his cut inside.
"The unconscious movement of the body is faster than that commanded by the brain [and its knowledge of what's next]," Ganesh told Dutch news service ANP in 2010.
Robben himself often doesn't know what's next either. "A lot of it comes from intuition and from experience. You're often reacting to the positioning of the defenders and midfielders," Robben said. "The situation dictates the run; you can't always look to shoot."
The goals might stick in the mind, but he's careful to stress that "flexibility" is ultimately more beneficial.
"You have to surprise opponents, keep them guessing," Robben said. "Doing the same thing over and over again without variation will not work. We're always looking to come up with different solutions up front, by taking up different positions or making different runs. If you never pass or dribble or go on the outside, cutting inside will stop working."
Although detailed data is hard to come by, anecdotal evidence from his teammates would support the idea that Robben has become better at doing "the Robben" because he attempts it less frequently now. In the treble-winning season of 2012-13, he started looking out for his teammates much more in the final third, moving beyond his image as an "ego shooter" (Bild).
The most important goal of his career also came as a result of a bit of variation. As he bore down on Roman Weidenfeller's goal in the Champions League final at Wembley in 2013, the Borussia Dortmund keeper anticipated a move inside and a curling shot toward the second post. Robben did make the move, but as Weidenfeller moved with him, he improvised by shooting early, toward the near post.
"Everything had to happen so quickly that I had no time for a hard shot," he said. "The ball rolled over the line really slowly, which made the goal even more beautiful." His winner that day delivered the European Cup for Bayern and his first big international trophy.
"It's a goal that will remain forever," he said. Even if it wasn't quite scored in trademark Robben fashion.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.