Arjen Robben Has Been Cutting Left His Entire Career. So Why Can’t Anyone Stop Him? Express News
DORTMUND, Germany — All told, Marcel Schmelzer must have spent hours scouring the video, searching for some sort of tell, some kind of clue.
Schmelzer, Borussia Dortmund’s long-serving left back, has performed the ritual 16 times over the last decade, building up an unparalleled expertise in the field. He has pored over countless clips. He was hoping to find something, anything that would give him a little advance warning, a bit of a head start.
“I tried to find a pattern,” he said. Thus far, though, he has drawn a blank. Even after all these years, even after all those hours of study, even after all those games, the defender who knows Arjen Robben better than anyone else still cannot work out when, exactly, he is going to cut inside.
From the outside, it can seem that there are few more predictable players in world soccer than Robben. He has performed his calling card so often since he first joined Bayern Munich 10 years ago that it now bears his name — not just in Germany, but also in France, where the act of cutting in from the right wing to shoot with the left foot is known as Le Robben. The player acknowledged last month that he was proud to have his “own move.”
What is most remarkable, though, is that his go-to maneuver has lost none of its power; the only surprise, now, is that he appears to retain his capacity to surprise.
Robben is, after all, deep into what will be his final season in Munich. He may make his final appearance in the Champions League for the club this week, should Bayern prove unable to get past Liverpool in a delicately poised last 16 tie on Wednesday at Munich’s Allianz Arena.
His time in Germany has been impressively successful: He has won six straight Bundesliga titles and a slew of domestic cups, and he scored the winning goal in the 2013 Champions League final. But it has also been admirably long. Robben is 35. It is 15 years since José Mourinho first signed him for Chelsea; 12 since he joined Real Madrid.
He remains, though, an integral part of one of soccer’s great powers, a winger of genuine menace, silken touch and searing speed. If Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are this era’s leading men, then Robben is among the most prominent members of the supporting cast: instantly recognizable, a fixture on the game’s most exalted stage, his signature move a regular feature of the latter rounds of the Champions League.
It is so familiar that it barely needs description. Robben sprints up the right wing, one arm outstretched for balance, head pulled back, legs whirring. Then, as he approaches the penalty area, he feints to his right and drops his shoulder, only to shift his weight and slip off to the left. The ball never leaves his control; his opponent is left grasping at shadows.
Robben glances up, and curls a shot across the goalkeeper. It does not always go in, of course, but it does so frequently enough that Schmelzer is not the only one to have spent considerable time trying to work out how to stop it.
Here, though, comes the puzzle. Robben has been cutting left for years. His intent is apparent to all. Defenders know exactly what is in his mind, precisely what is coming, and yet remain powerless to stop it.
To Robben, two factors explain his continued success. Timing, he said in an interview with a handful of British newspapers last month, is one key: “If you do it at the right time, it still surprises them.” Variation, he has previously suggested, is equally important. “Doing the same thing over and over again without variation will not work,” he said. “If you never pass or dribble or go on the outside, cutting inside will stop working.”
To Schmelzer — who has had to deal with Robben in direct, face-to-face competition more than any other opponent — there is something else, however. He has noticed that Robben has leaned more heavily on his favored move in recent years, using the wing as a decoy to “open the path to the center.” It still works, though, because he “recognizes it when you block his path, and then he reacts accordingly; that is what makes him special.”
It is that ability to improvise that Ricardo Rodriguez identified, too. Rodriguez, a Swiss defender now with A.C. Milan, knows Robben almost as well as Schmelzer. According to Gracenote Sports, he has faced him 11 times during his career, in his time with Wolfsburg and F.C. Zurich.
“He is very fast, especially with the ball,” Rodriguez said. “That makes it very difficult to stop him. He is terribly fast when he cuts inside. The only way to try to stop him is to stay very close to him. If you don’t, he can hurt you any time.”
There is a reason for that. In 2010, a cognitive scientist named Shanti Ganesh, based at Radboud University in the Netherlands, conducted a study into Robben’s movement. She determined that Robben moves “a little faster than conscious knowledge.” A defender’s brain, Ganesh said, unconsciously follows Robben’s feints, even if it knows, deep down, that they are only feints. In the time it takes to rectify the error, Robben — as he was always going to, as everyone involved knew he was going to — has cut inside and taken a shot. “The player can still correct himself,” Ganesh said. “But that will always be a fraction too late.”
It is a theory that chimes with the empirical study conducted by Wendell, a Brazilian left back at Bayer Leverkusen. He has faced Robben 10 times since moving to Germany, behind only Schmelzer and Rodriguez.
“Normally, it is the same move, but it is also the move we are tired of seeing, running after, and not getting the ball,” he said. “There must be something he does. Maybe he waits for the last moment, I don’t know. Most of the time, I try to wait for his move, so I have a bigger chance of getting the ball back. If I don’t take my time, I have no chance. He’ll dribble past me.”
Like Schmelzer, Wendell has spent more time than he might like watching clips of Robben. Like Schmelzer, he remembers training sessions in the days leading up to games against Bayern in which the team worked on how to defend him: His danger is such that it can only be dealt with collectively.
Dortmund always had the same approach. “You need your teammates to back you up,” Schmelzer said. “We have to be honest: It is simply not possible to take him out of the match for the full 90 minutes. Jürgen Klopp always taught us that the problem is not losing a duel, but not covering it.”
When Schmelzer decided to go in for a tackle, he relied on his central defender, Mats Hummels, and his defensive midfielder, Sven Bender, to scurry across in support. It was not always enough: Robben, too, was not acting alone; he could always call on the threat of Philipp Lahm or, later, Joshua Kimmich streaking up the right wing to collect the ball on the overlap. Schmelzer had to be conscious of that, too.
Working out when to use the cut inside, and when it was merely a decoy, was always the challenge. Even after all these years, his opponents cannot tell when the move is coming. They have seen it before, and yet somehow every time feels like the first time. They can study the tapes, they can stay close, they can call for backup.
If none of that works, Wendell said, there is one last resort: “I try to get the ball back,” he said. “If I don’t, then I have to commit a foul.” It is when that fails — as it so often has — when he skips away too quickly, when he disappears in a flash, that Arjen Robben does what he has been doing for 15 years, does what he always does, and cuts inside.