Forward thinking aids Arjen Robben
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Is it the feet, is it the boots? Not quite, apparently. Arjen Robben told Dutch paper De Telegraaf that his new socks were the secret to his brilliance at the World Cup. "They provide more grip and stability," the 30-year-old said about his new pair of ribbed sokken.
Whether you buy that remarkably banal explanation or not, there's no arguing that the Bayern Munich forward has quite literally run the show for the Elftal in the first three games, trail-blazing through the tournament in Brazil, Road Runner style. Robben scored three goals against Spain and Australia, and he provided the key assist for Memphis Depay's tap-in against Chile.
Robben is the main reason the Dutch public have (largely) forgiven Louis van Gaal for ignoring his contractual obligation to play 4-3-3 in favour of a 3-5-2/5-3-2 system, and the abandonment of "total football" principles couldn't be more total. Who needs 11 players attacking in random patterns when the direct route to goal -- via quick passes to Robben and equally devastating fellow attacker Robin van Persie -- provides such thrill and success?
And yet, there's still the displeasure of traditionalists to contend with. "If the opponents will permit it, we will play more football," Robben said ahead of the round of 16 tie with Mexico on Sunday. "I understand the criticism of our game perfectly well, but we should not be distracted by it. It's the only proper way in order to have a shot at the World Cup with this squad and the qualities it possesses."
Australia showed that Van Gaal's system, like all systems, has flaws that can be exploited -- namely the space between the wing-backs and the three central defenders. But the benefits far outweigh those negatives. The danger posed by having two strikers in your team doesn't just double, it grows exponentially.
Firstly, most centre-backs are no longer used to playing against two attackers. The trend has gone the opposite way, toward no (fixed) centre-forwards. In a back four, the central defenders cannot cover each other like they normally do against a lone striker. That, in turn, prevents the full-backs from pushing up and exploiting wide positions. The back three/five favoured by Mexico is a better fit, but Robben will take up wide positions in order to negate that numerical inferiority.
The biggest positive effect, however, stems from the contrasting playing styles of the dynamic duo. Robben is incredibly fast, likes to run onto through balls and can go past defenders. Van Persie likes the the ball to his feet, and he holds it up well. Against the latter, opposition coaches would usually play a high-defensive line -- Van Persie is not going to outrun the centre-backs -- but you can't play too high a line because Robben is liable to break through it. True strike partnerships have gone out of fashion in football, but when you have two players who complement each other this well, going "retro" makes plain sense. It probably takes an experienced, clever manager of Van Gaal's stature to spot something that looks so obvious.
Maybe the Bondscoach had tuned in to the DFB Cup final at the end of May. Bayern coach Pep Guardiola, a Van Gaal disciple, fielded Robben as the sole striker in a 3-4-2-1 formation because he knew that his injury-ravaged Bayern team wouldn't be able to dominate possession against Borussia Dortmund. Needless to say, the Dutchman scored a crucial goal at the Olympic stadium in Berlin with his late strike in extra time, and Bayern went on to win 2-0. The biggest goal of his career so far, the match winner against Dortmund in the Champions League final a year before, too, had come when he took up a central striking position and latched on to a Franck Ribery back-heel.
Robben playing as a striker in Brazil has brought performances that have seen him compared to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. At 30 years of age, his ascent to those rarefied levels has been a long time coming. The positional switch has helped hugely. It's worth remembering that Messi and Ronaldo only became undisputed superstars when they were allowed to play as strikers, or in Ronaldo's case, as a wide forward who's relieved from defensive duties.
Tracking the opposition's wide player, as Robben had been mostly doing in the 4-2-3-1 system played by Bayern, costs lots of energy and also takes you far away from goal for extended periods of the game. And offensively, it's hard to find space in wide areas against teams who defend deep. With Netherlands, Robben can now stay up front and wait for the ball in the "second striker" areas halfway into the opposition half. Van Gaal's defensive system with five players in a line in the Dutch half isolates him and Van Persie. And that's a good thing. It provides the space he needs to pick up speed.
Van Gaal's grand plan only works because Robben is in peak form, though. He was reluctant to accept that he was playing the best football of his career -- "I don't know, I leave that up to others," he told reporters after the Chile game -- but came up with an interesting explanation: "Maybe my performances stand out more because I've been fit and without injury for a long time. When I'm fully fit, I have power and pace, then I feel good on the pitch".
The numbers bear that out. In a career troubled by lengthy enforced breaks, this season registers as a positive outlier. He's played 45 games for Bayern, the most he's ever managed in his club career. The next-best campaign was with Eindhoven (41 games) some 11 years ago. This extended run has obviously worked wonders for his mind as well as his body. Watch him before kickoff on Sunday. While others stare motionlessly into the half-distance, Robben will be jumping up and down, unable to contain his energy and excitement, like a little boy, eager to try out his new football boots for the very first time.
The sky doesn't have to be the limit for a Robben this good, you sense, and a Dutch travel company agree. They have promised the Oranje team a trip to outer space. All they have to do is bring back the trophy from Rio.