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.”

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.

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