Football | How Arjen Robben Changed the Role of Winger

Arjen Robben once said “I have two speeds. Fast and faster. I don’t just run. I take it.”

Arsenal, and Francis Coquelin in particular, found that to their detriment on Wednesday night as Bayern Munich destroyed Arsenal at the Allianz Arena yet again, with a brilliant opening goal of the match.

It was more than a curious case of déjà vu to witness Robben scoring a goal cutting inside and shooting from distance. As the video below shows, Robben is the master of the cut inside dribble and has done it again, and again, and again.

But more than that, he is one of the clearest examples of the tactical change in a winger’s make-up from the late 00s onwards at the top level.

Differing from the Luis Figo or Ryan Giggs style wingers that made hay on their preferred foot in the 1990s, Robben instead operates solely from the right wing. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Robben being effective on the side of his favoured foot, given that his whole game revoles around cutting inside at almost every opportunity without exception, to shoot or pass with his stronger left foot.

The sheer predictability of Robben’s main move may have rendered a lesser player a one-trick pony. In fact, for much of Robben’s career, he was denounced as being too predictable and too easy to stop.

He left Real Madrid for Bayern Munich in 2009 when the club sold him without his will, preferring to bring in the more mercurial movements of Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo.

At this point, it seemed highly unlikely that he would be known as anything more than a good player whose injuries and poor temperament held him back from being considered a great player. 

However, Robben was given trust and a licence to create under his fellow Dutchman Louis Van Gaal at Bayern Munich and did much to elevate his team to the next level. Only a loss in the Champions League final against Inter Milan prevented the Bavarians from a treble in his first season.

His spectacular volley from outside the box in the Champions League quarter-final to knock out a strong Manchester United side demonstrated that Robben had the ability to decide the biggest matches.

While there would be more anguish with a missed penalty in the 2012 Champions League final, the Dutchman ran Guardiola’s Barcelona ragged in the 2013 Champions League semi-final and decided the final against Borussia Dortmund with a brilliant piece of improvisation.

The 2014 World Cup was Robben’s crowning moment, perhaps let down by his team-mates in what was a mediocre Netherlands side, but he was nevertheless outstanding on their run to the semi-finals, none moreso when scoring two goals against the World Cup holders Spain in the group stage. And all by doing the same tricks, over and over again.

Robben is still very injury-prone which hinders his chances of ever getting numbers on the same level as Messi or Ronaldo. Yet when fit, defenders continue to be destroyed by Robben, no matter how predictable he remains to be.

And Robben is happy to keep doing the same moves.

“Yes, it’s a weapon,” Robben told ESPN FC in an interview in Munich. “When something works, you just keep going. But I’m not the right person to explain why it works.”

Luckily, someone can. According to Shanti Ganesh, a specialist in cognitive neuroscience at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Robben’s movements are simply too fast for the average human mind to stop.

Combine that with a penchant for a tumble under minimal contact and a rocket of a long shot if left with space and you have a one-trick pony that has made himself one of the most effective wingers in football over the past decade.

David Gorman