Arjen Robben is evergreen. Where players in his position and whose game depends so much on speed usually wither as they approach their 30s, Robben hasn’t declined. He’s changed his game, but only in the essence that he’s refined the things that he’s good at. He’s mastered himself so much that him cutting in from the left and curling the ball to the far post is as certain as death and Bayern Munich winning the Bundesliga.
The move is so natural and mythical that it’s always a shock when he fails to execute it. It was one of these rare failures that actually led to Bayern’s third goal against RB Leipzig and started an amazing comeback.
Bayern had won a free kick on the right, about 30 yards out. Thiago stood under the ball and Robben to its right. Thiago ran, touched the ball backwards and continued his run, unmarked down the right channel. Robben played it to him, and as the defense moved towards the goal to prevent a dangerous cross, Thiago played it back down to Robben.
Robben controlled it on the edge of the box with his first touch. But then something odd happened. As he went for his traditional move of pushing it outside of his left shoulder and then curling it beyond the goalkeeper, he missed the ball completely. A defender quickly came to close him down, and in a moment of desperation — else the shot be blocked and the chance gone — Robben lashed and struck the ball with power rather than precision.
The shot deflected off the defender, beat the diving keeper but cannoned off the crossbar by the near post. It then fell nicely for Robert Lewandowski at the far post to head into an empty net.
That refined maneuver that even generates a chance by its failure is wonderful, but it doesn’t come close to the joy of seeing Robben isolated against a defender in open space. Even at the age of 33, which he’s had the appearance of since he was 18.
The fifth and winning goal in the 94th minute was a mixture of his craftiness and his somehow undiminished speed. A Bayern counter reached its climax when Thomas Müller sprayed the ball out to Robben on the right wing and the camera panned over to show that the winger had a sole defender in a desert of space. The defender, knowing that he was in the worst position situation, had to make a decision between letting Robben come at him — bad choice — or to take the chance and attack his man before he gets diced up — even worse. He stepped to tackle Robben and found himself realizing that he’s made a huge mistake. The winger had pushed the ball beyond the defender on the outside and ran around him on the inside.
Meeting the ball just before a second defender could come to the rescue, Robben drove into the box. And when this new defender tried to slow him down by pulling at him, he just leaned inside and sped up. Then he cut inside and did something different. He chipped it delicately over the sprawling keeper and compounded Leipzig’s blowing of a 3-1 lead in the second half.
At the beginning of this year, Robben admitted that when he was sold to Bayern from Real Madrid, he saw it as a step down for his career.
“There was contact with Bayern, but it was a difficult decision, the most difficult one of my career,” Robbin said. “Bayern were not among the European elite at that moment — like we are now — and it was a step back for me.”
He says that now, in his eighth season with the team, that he feels a part like he’s part of the club. The marriage between the two has been so perfect and fulfilling for both parties that it seemed destined that they should find each other. He couldn’t have had his best moments for any other team.
Robben had been always been a spectacular talent, but more known than his penchant of cutting inside, was and still is his inability to stay fit. For every few weeks of turning defenders to confused children, there’s a muscular injury that keeps him out for one or two months. Had he stayed at Real Madrid to fight for his place, he would have lost his spot due to his fragile body, even if he had the talent to keep up with the new galacticos.
In Bayern, he found a team with a surreal level of patience in the modern game. A team that not only believed in him but would wait for him to recover from every new injury. As they showed with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Franck Ribery, and many other valued members of their team, Bayern treated their players as if they’re humans that deserved understanding and even sympathy rather than machines that should be turned over at the first sign of fragility. Thanks to their great financial status and well-built team, Robben being injured isn’t devastating. Bayern can afford to wait for him, because while he was one of their biggest stars, they didn’t entirely depend on him. He is both integral to their success, and a luxury for them to have.
The true magical part of this relationship is that every time Robben comes back, he seems to come back faster and even better. A history of muscular injuries should have crippled his physicality and forced him into a deeper role, or at least prompted a change in his playing style. But almost to match Bayern’s surreal patience with his constant break downs, he rewards them by producing at a world-class level from the second he steps back onto the field. They can wait for him because he’s worth it.
The apex of of this bond was Robben’s man of the match performance scoring in the 2013 Champions League Final against Borussia Dortmund, where he scored the winning goal in the 89th minute. When he received a back-heeled pass from his partner in crime, Ribery, and darted into the box, past three sliding defenders, before sliding the ball beyond Roman Weidenfeller. When he first signed for them, he didn’t think Bayern were among Europe’s elite. That day, he took them to the top of the crop.
The goal against Leipzig was less monumental — Bayern Munich had already won the league going in, but it was just very symbolic. Pushed to the brink by the swaggering newcomers and wanna-be usurpers to their league dominance — under threat of embarrassment — Robben was there at the death to claim the game for Bayern. To reassert his team’s greatness.
It was a team effort to level the score after being down 2-4 with 10 minutes remaining, but it had to be Arjen Robben who scored the winner. He had to prove once again, in spectacular fashion, that he’s worth the wait.