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When Arjen Robben announced that the current season would be his last with Bayern Munich, it suggested an appropriate time to evaluate the career of the Dutch international. Whilst never the most prolific of goal-scorers – certainly not until he landed in the Bundesliga when an adaptation of his game produced a rapid uplift in his goals return – he had been a key element of successful teams across Europe’s top leagues.
After a successful period in the Netherlands, first with home-town club FC Groningen, and then with PSV Eindhoven, Robben moved to Chelsea along with team-mate Mateja Kežman as part of what was presented as a ‘Batman & Robin’ – partnership to keep José Mourinho’s Stamford Bridge club powering along and accumulating silverware. His time in the Eredivisie had been successful, with PSV securing the league title in 2002–03, but while Kežman was deemed by many in West London to be a total flop, Robben’s three-year stay in England would reap rich rewards.
Mourinho deployed the Dutchman’s skills and electrifying pace on the flank of his Blue Army, and with Damien Duff on the opposite wing, Chelsea had a forward line of searing speed that would rip opposition defences apart, especially on the counter-attack and, despite a number of niggling injuries, Robben was a key element in the club achieving back-to-back league titles, two League Cup triumphs and a Charity Shield.
Despite being a fundamental element of Mourinho’s attack, and a regular starter who played more than a century of times for the club across his three seasons with Chelsea, the return of a mere 13 goals disguises how important his presence was to the club, not only in menacing opposition defences with his pace and power, but also in the number of chances that he created for others. A settled time is never likely to materialise at Chelsea though, and in one of their regular, and seemingly inevitable, upheavals Robben left.
Departures from the club are seldom harmonious, as was witnessed when the manager also departed, but at the end of the 2006-07 season speculation was rife both that Real Madrid were courting Robben’s services, and that the player was keen to move to the Bernabeu. Statements such as Robben made to AS, saying, “I do not know when a deal will be reached. I would like to send a message to the Madrid fans, but I can’t until my future is sorted,” were a clear indication on intent, and the Dutchman moved to Los Blancos in exchange for a reported £24 million.
For so many players, donning the white shirt of Real Madrid is the apogee of their career, and so it was for Robben. A La Liga title in his first season at the club, brought his third championship in three different leagues, but if there’s one club more volatile than Chelsea, it’s Real Madrid and at the end of his second spell in the Spanish capital, a new president arrived, and in such times, new playing staff are guaranteed, with others then being pushed towards the door, often regardless of past triumphs.
Florentino Pérez was granted the top seat at the club on the promise of who he would bring with him into the squad. Furthering the ‘Galactico’ theme of his previous term he delivered on election promises by signing both Brazilian playmaker Kaká and the mercurial talents of Cristiano Ronaldo. It meant the end of the road for Robben and, on reflection, with Ronaldo arriving, few would dispute the logic. One of those few would however be the player himself, who claimed that he was “forced out” of the club, insisting that he “didn’t want to go.” Real Madrid take no prisoners at these times though. A move to Bayern Munich may not have been what Robben wanted at the time, but it would spark his career into a different phase, and bring more glory, silverware and league titles in a fourth different country.
How did he adapt? “Arjen is a perfect example of how an older player can still learn and develop, and refuse to be satisfied with what he’s already achieved,” former Bayern sporting director Matthias Sammer said in 2014. It was the year Robben finished third behind Ronaldo and Manuel Neuer in the UEFA Best Player in Europe awards. “He’s world class. I can only encourage every young player to watch and learn from him.”
A decade after moving from Madrid, as the first Bundesliga games of the 2018-19 season got underway, Robben would step from the bench to net his 96th league goal for Die Roten in just just short of 200 appearances. The goal against Hoffenheim led to a 3-1 Bayern victory, and to many looked to set the club on the way to yet another title. Although events since then have put that into doubt, it hardly detracts from Robben’s stunningly effective contribution to the success of the club.
Up to the end of January 2019, a further two league goals have brought him even closer to the century, and coupling in a recorded 68 assists, produces a statistic revealing that, on average, he has been involved in a goal for the club every 84 minutes of time on the pitch. Just to illustrate the significance of this, again working until the end of January, this compares as massively favourable when balanced against the records of others promoted as superstar players of the English game. Eden Hazard contributes every 137 minutes for Chelsea and Kevin De Bruyne every 122 minutes for Manchester City. Only three players have better records, and the fact that this particular trio comprises Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo, emphasises the exalted company in which Arjen Robben deserves to be placed.
So, after 305 games and 143 goals for Bayern Munich, marginally awry from that ever-reliable measure of top strikers of a goal every other game, Arjen Robben’s time at the Allianz Arena is drawing to a close, but perhaps not his career. Club manager Niko Kovač is full of praise for the player as he approaches the veteran stage of his career. “The work he puts in every day is fascinating. He’s a real example to young players. He’s still world-class and a really important player for us.”
Who’s to say where the next stop will be for the Flying Dutchman. Perhaps retirement may be forestalled for a while and a nostalgic return to PSV may tempt him to prolong his career. The world of football can only hope so. If this term is the last time we see Arjen Robben on a football field, the end will be too soon. Far too soon for such a talent to be lost to the game.