The curling Dutchman

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What did Cesare Prandelli say to his players at half-time on that cold winter’s night? Maybe: “He cuts inside on his left foot! You have to watch that! On the left foot!” Again and again. It’s 9 May 2010, Champions League round of 16, second leg. FC Bayern had won the first leg 2-1. “He’ll try to catch you on the wrong feet,” Prandelli could’ve warned his defenders. “He’ll run at you at pace, move the ball onto the left foot, cut inside and look to shoot. Don’t let him shoot!” And the defenders probably thought: “OK, we already know that, we know the move!” Still, they might have felt unease, maybe even a little fear. Fear of a trick that no defender in the world knew how to counter.

Arjen Robben played for 20 years and for various clubs: for Groningen, PSV, Real Madrid, Chelsea and then for Bayern Munich, where he spent the 10 best years of his career. Robben experienced many ups and downs during the two decades of his career. It was a rollercoaster ride of injuries and top form, winning goals and final defeats. With one constant: the sprint down the right wing, the feint and the quick movement onto the left foot, the curler into the far corner. His signature move.

This seemingly weightless glide was always part of his toolbox – ‘Le Robben’ as the French called it with reverence. For years, everyone knew what was going to happen. The opposition coach, the defenders certainly, even the fans in the stands. At the Allianz Arena, they would often stand up in readiness when Robben got the ball on the right wing.

Yet how can a move repeatedly come off when everyone knows it’s coming?

Simple yet effective

Back to March 2010, in freezing cold Florence. It’s going well for Fiorentina after the break: after around an hour, the Tuscany side lead 3-1. Then in the 65th minute, not long after the Italians’ third goal, Mark van Bommel switches play with a long ball to the right flank, to Robben. Juan Manuel Vargas, the left-back, gets himself set but looks nervous. He frantically runs over to Robben, wanting to block his path to the byline. His defensive colleague Felipe is nowhere to be seen.

Arjen Robben was one of the fastest players in the world.

And Robben? With his second touch he shifts the ball onto his left and sets off. Two, three quick steps and Vargas simply can't catch him. Midfielder Cristiano Zanetti tries to help, but one feint is enough and Robben's away. One last touch, then he pulls the trigger from 25 metres. Vargas can only watch as the ball flies towards goal and crashes into the top right corner. It finishes 3-2 but it's Bayern who go through to the quarter-finals thanks to the away goals rule and Robben's rocket. 

Running at pace, cutting inside, curling into the corner – nobody in world football mastered this move better than Robben. The goal against Fiorentina and 'Le Robben' sum him up as a footballer: his athleticism, his technical brilliance, his speed and his unrelenting will to win.

By the way, it's not to be taken for granted that Robben's signature move is still viewed so positively today.

Arjen Robben on the charge against Dortmund.

His runs on goal were too predictable, it was said, especially in his early days at Bayern. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung admitted that Robben could wow the crowd with his solo runs, but: "Robben is not someone who seeks out duels and draws opponents towards him in order to create space for teammates. He prefers to go for goal himself. That makes him unpopular with teammates, and predictable to opposition players." At this point he was still nicknamed "Aleinikow" by some because his play was too pig-headed now and then. 

Too predictable, really? 

Preparation useless

And what does the man himself say about the secret to 'the Robben'? "The most important elements of the move are the speed and the timing," he explained some years ago. "When the defender moves, I cut inside. Then it's too late for the defender. He who decides is always first."

Arjen Robben scores into the right corner with his left foot.

So it was in the Champions League semi-final second leg against Barcelona in the 2012/13 season. Robben runs at defender Adriano, who's clearly showing him down the touchline. He knows what's coming and really tries to force Robben onto his right. However, as the defender takes a sideways step, Robben sees his chance. One touch with the left, the hips drop low and he's already got sufficient space to fire the ball into the far corner with his left. 1-0 to Bayern.

If you watch Robben in his heyday, the move looks crazily simple. And yet even the greatest full-backs of his generation had virtually no chance of stopping it. Not Patrice Evra or Ashley Cole, not Jordi Alba or Javier Zanetti. Not even Marcel Schmelzer, who came up against Robben more often than anyone else. They were the best in the business. They studied hours of video material, analysed every movement and every feint. And still Robben got past them. Like an accident that cannot be prevented despite the best forecasts and ideal preparation. Schmelzer told the New York Times a few years ago: “He recognises when I'm blocking his path, and he reacts to it immediately. That's what makes him so special.”

Bangladeshi newspaper the Daily Star described Robben as “a one-trick pony, but with a trick so good that he almost always wins the prize”. As well as the timing, another key element to this trick was his incredible speed. The Dutchman was among the fastest footballers in the world. At the 2014 World Cup, he reached a speed of 37 km/h during a sprint in the group match against Spain, which even today would still put him among the top 10, ahead of Erling Haaland (36 km/h) and only just behind the fastest, Kylian Mbappé (38 km/h).

Variation of perfection

However, Robben himself attributes the success of his move to one factor: variation. “If you never pass or go to the byline, then eventually the cutting inside isn’t going to work anymore,” he once said in an interview. “Doing the same thing again and again, without variation, doesn’t work.” And indeed, he scored lots of goals in a different way – including his most famous, the winner at Wembley in the 2013 Champions League final against Dortmund. But there’s a link to the glide here as well. Like he did so many of his opponents, he catches Roman Weidenfeller on the wrong foot. The goalkeeper can no longer react and the ball rolls past him over the line.

Arjen Robben scored 144 goals in a Bayern shirt.

Even science has sought explanations for Robben’s unique ability to leave players in his wake. In 2010, Dutch scientist Shanti Ganesh researched Robben’s movements. She came to the conclusion that Robben moves slightly quicker than the opponent can consciously react. The defender, no matter how talented, unconsciously follows Robben’s body swerves even when he knows deep down that he’s being deceived.

In the time that the defender needs to atone for this mistake, Robben’s already away. “The player can still correct himself,” says Ganesh, “but he will always be a fraction of a second too late.” And when Schmelzer, Adriano or Evra looked around, the ball was already sailing towards the goal. All the warnings from the coaches, all the preparation had once again been of no help.

In part 3 of the Unmatched series, we examined Franz Beckenbauer's magic boot:

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