In France, they have a phrase for it: Le Robben. It’s the same in Holland and Germany, where a trademark passage of play is named after the man who has perfected it.
You know the trick. You will have seen it many times when Arjen Robben played at Chelsea from 2004 to 2007. Attacking the full back as if to go outside him, suddenly, the weight of his body will shift and somehow he will be cutting inside instead, the defender off balance.
Thing is, he’s 35 now. Defenders have been watching that move for 19 years. Still they haven’t worked it out. Robben smiles. ‘No,’ he says, evidently pretty pleased with the fact. ‘Well, if you do it at the right time it still surprises them! Timing is the key. Always. My wife sometimes tells me that I can be very proud of that, because people say it like it’s your own move: running inside and scoring a goal.
Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben has been one of the best wingers in world football for 15 years
He has enjoyed a staggering career that has seen him win almost everything there is
‘They say it in Holland or here in Germany as well as France. That is something special because it is something I have been doing throughout the years and, well, it’s still successful!’
Robben has been at Bayern Munich for 10 years and recently announced that he will be leaving at the end of the season. It is 15 years since Jose Mourinho took him to Stamford Bridge to be part of what many still consider the most impressive Chelsea team of the modern era, winning two League titles, two League Cups and the FA Cup during his time at the club. Since then he has won La Liga at Real Madrid, seven Bundesliga titles at Bayern, the German Cup four times and the Champions League. He led Holland to a World Cup final in 2010 and a semi-final in 2014.
‘Our president at the club (Uli Hoeness) always says, “You don’t have young or old players, you have good ones and bad ones”. I’m not young any more, not in football at least. I’m still there, playing as a winger at one of the best clubs in Europe, so that’s something quite special and that’s why I have to enjoy it.’
He isn’t ending yet. He will play next season and mentions England as a possibility. But for now he is focused on an old foe. Bayern are at Anfield on Tuesday for the Champions League last-16 clash. He grimaces a little when Anfield comes up in conversations. ‘I think if you ask me the worst stadium for me, it’s probably Liverpool,’ he says laughing. ‘There has to be one! You always have your favourite opponent and there always has to be negative one.’
For the record, he has actually won there twice in the Premier League with Chelsea. But he has lost four times, twice in those epic Champions League semi-finals of 2005 and 2007, the peak of the Mourinho-Benitez animosity, and then again 4-0 in the 2009 Champions League quarter-final with Real Madrid. As for Luis Garcia’s ghost goal in 2005, time seems to have healed the perceived injustice. He smiles when it is mentioned. ‘We’ll never know!’
Robben drops to his knees and scream with delight after winning the 2013 Champions League
Robben was the man-of-the-match at Wembley and scored the winner against Dortmund
He can rest easy about it now, having scored the winning goal and been man-of-the-match in the 2013 Champions League final at Wembley, itself a redemption after he missed a penalty as Bayern lost to Chelsea in the final at their home ground in 2012. But it’s difficult to overstate just how fervid those 2005 and 2007 semi-finals were, when Mourinho-Benitez games seemed to take on the intensity of a 100-year-old Mafia feud.
‘At that time Liverpool were a very, very strong team,’ says Robben. ‘They won the Champions League 2005. They were always tight games, especially in the Champions League.’ And yet in 2005 they were 37 points behind Chelsea in the Premier League. ‘I think at that time they were really capable of being this cup-fighter team, also in the FA Cup or Carling Cup. In one or two games they could really live up to it and perform, just not the whole season, which was maybe too much and they were not constant enough. That was their biggest quality. They were there at the moment they needed to be there.
‘Now I think it changed and they developed really well. Credit the new manager, who has done a great job. Last year they were in Champions League final, doing well in the league and at the moment they are level at the top, City is close. That’s the title everybody is waiting for in Liverpool. It’s a long, long time ago that they won the League and that’s the one, of course, they’re dreaming of.’
Bayern haven’t played at Anfield since 1981, in a similarly tight semi-final which ended 0-0, with Liverpool going through on away goals after the second leg and going on to beat Real Madrid in the final. So there won’t be many at the German club with a reference point for those famous Anfield European nights, which Robben believes genuinely do affect some players, even if he doesn’t anticipate it being a problem for Bayern.
Robben and Bayern play Liverpool in the Champions League and he has been there before
Robben played those epic semi-finals of 2005, where Luis Garcia scored THAT goal, and 2007
‘It’s all about the players,’ he said ‘If your mentality is not strong enough, you can be influenced a little bit and it can make a difference. As an opponent, mentally we have to be very strong, just focused on the game and nothing more.
‘We don’t have that many young guys any more. We’ve got a very experienced team. Everybody knows the atmosphere at Anfield is probably one of the best you can imagine in Europe. So that’s something you have to be aware of, of course. But I think we’re used to it, playing in big stadiums like that, with fans. In these top games there are not a lot of secrets. It’s about little details and about just who has the best form that day.’
The next few months will feel a little like a farewell tour for Robben. He is battling back to fitness and though ruled out of the Anfield clash he hopes to be ready for the return leg next month. But the decision to leave Bayern was one that took a fair degree of soul searching.
‘It was a big step, to finish your career here at an amazing club after 10 amazing years. I was also relieved once I made the decision and made it open to the public. That’s the first big decision and now the second one. It’s maybe more difficult, because if it’s about what is coming next you want to make it the best decision possible and that’s always difficult in football because you will only know after you have made the decision.’
He’s not ready to follow former Chelsea team-mate Frank Lampard into coaching. ‘No, not yet,’ he says. ‘I’m still playing. I don’t know how long but I always said that as long as I enjoy it and physically feel good enough to perform at the level I want to, then I will continue. I am also still curious where I will be next year. Maybe England, maybe Spain, or somewhere else — it can be anywhere. We’ll see.’
The next few months will feel like a farewell tour for Robben and he admits it was a tough call
Robben insists ‘the success and love for the game’ are the secrets behind his longevity
He is in the same bracket as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes in terms of longevity and the relentlessness of his search for achievement. ‘Yeah, I think it’s just the success and the love for the game,’ he says. ‘The main thing that keeps you going is just not to be satisfied, you know. In football there’s always going to be a next game. If you win or you lose, or if you win titles, that’s already the past. There always comes a new season and a new game and you always have to focus on that and never be happy, never be satisfied, always try also to improve your game. We have had some amazing managers here at the club.
‘For example, when I started here with Pep Guardiola, who for me is maybe the best manager there is at the moment. Normally, at my age — I started with him at 29 — normally you say you’re not really going to improve yourself again and make steps. But with him I think I still developed as a player and made some small steps and improved some little things and that’s interesting.
‘He’s just a very special guy in terms of tactics in the game and the way he improves the game. He loves football. But he loves to have the ball. He doesn’t love to run after the ball. It’s just interesting the way he lives and breathes football for 24 hours a day. It’s always difficult to say the best period — but I really, really loved it.’
Scholes confessed that for all the accolades, the worry about the next game, the next trophy, always prevented him from enjoying the day-to-day experience. Robben nods. ‘There are moments when you enjoy it, but not a lot because you’re really focused on the next game,’ he says. ‘It’s difficult to enjoy. There are also some times when you say to other people that you have to enjoy it. “Enjoy it! Enjoy it!” That’s what you say to young players but then you ask yourself, “Are you enjoying it?” Maybe it’s good also for yourself to enjoy it!’
There was a period between 2013 and 2014 where only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo appeared to be operating on a higher level than Robben, which is when Bayern won the treble, with Robben man-of-the-match in the Champions League final, and when he was inspirational in Holland’s run to the 2014 World Cup semi-finals.
He is in a select club of players to have played for both Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola
Robben says he is not ready to be a coach yet and is still waiting for a new club for the summer
‘At the time you’re not realising it,’ he says. ‘Football keeps going, going, going. If you look back and ask, “Was it your best period?” I think, maybe, yeah. It’s always difficult as well because normally it always goes with titles. If you win a title, win the Champions League, reach the World Cup final, everybody notices it even more. But maybe, for example, the year after the World Cup, with Pep, I think, maybe that was my best year but we didn’t win the Champions League or there was no international tournament.’
Robben is also in a select club in that he has played for three of the greatest coaching minds that have forged the modern game in Guardiola, Mourinho and Louis van Gaal. And when he talks of Mourinho from 2005 to 2007, it is attacking football that first comes to mind. ‘I think we were very offensive,’ says Robben. ‘We played with two strikers, with two wingers. It was like a 4-4-2, a lot of offensive players as well on the pitch. But what I remember about that period is the team. It was a real team all together, the players the characters all fit together very, very well.
‘We had a great manager as well in Mourinho, who made sure that the team spirit was working well and of course for the club it was the first time that we won the league in 50 years. And for me it was a big, big step because I was still very young. I was 20. It was the first time I went abroad. You have to adapt quickly and especially if you are that young, you have to grow up very quick.’
Nevertheless, when asked for his own tactical take on the game, where he aligns himself in those three distinctive styles, he doesn’t hesitate or pause to think. ‘I’m a big Pep fan. I enjoy the game, I’m an attacking player and I want to play football. But of course I also realise… and then you start to think like a coach… that you have to look at the quality of your players or the team you have, and what’s the best thing to do, the best system.’ He cites Van Gaal’s deviation from the purist Dutch principles at the 2014 World Cup as the prime example.
More recently the likes of Jurgen Klopp have gate-crashed the tactical debate as one of the world’s great influencers and Robben, who crossed swords with his Borussia Dortmund team, has been intrigued. ‘You have to have worked with him (to say something). Of course what you see from the outside and how passionate he is about the game. He delivered at Dortmund and now he’s delivering at Liverpool.’
The regrets of Robben’s illustrious career would centre more on World Cup disappointments
Yet it isn’t actually the football that gives him most pleasure, but compliments on his character
The regrets of an illustrious career would centre more on the World Cup finals. In the 2010 final, 62 minutes into the game with the score at 0-0, Robben broke through with just Iker Casillas to beat. He sent the Spain goalkeeper the wrong way, striking the ball well. Yet Casillas managed to lift a trailing leg to deflect the shot wide and Spain would win 1-0 in extra time.
‘You can always say, “What if?” he says ruefully. ‘But in the moment it goes like that…’ He clicks his fingers. ‘You have to decide what to do in one split second. And you will never know. The people in Holland, full of emotion, they say, “What would have happened if he had scored that goal in the final?” But there was still half an hour to play and you never know what was going to happen. Spain could have still attacked and scored.’
In the semi-final in 2014 against Argentina, the game was similarly poised when, in the last minute of normal time, Robben broke through on goal. As he lifted to shoot, Javier Mascherano launched himself into a seemingly unfeasible tackle, sliding to block the ball.
Yet it isn’t actually the football that gives him most pleasure. ‘Maybe it is just personal things: fans coming up to you or you meet someone in the supermarket who gives you a compliment in a different way. The way they see you as a person. I think that sometimes makes me more proud than [how I’m seen] as a football player.
‘Hopefully people have enjoyed it and there is nothing I can do more. This is what I am.’