Football: Arjen is Robben the limelight

By Jim White

Dutch star is finally realising his potential on world football’s biggest stage.

Even Dutch fans weren't prepared for how influential Arjen Robben would be for their team at this World Cup. Photo / AP
Even Dutch fans weren't prepared for how influential Arjen Robben would be for their team at this World Cup. Photo / AP

Always appearing older than he is, 30-year-old Arjen Robben seems to have been around, fully formed, for years. But what we are seeing at this World Cup is a player at last coming of age.

He is a player finally melding his considerable physical gifts with tactical application. He has found his time and role. And it has taken many by surprise, even in his homeland.

"He has reached a whole new level," says the Dutch journalist Elko Born. "We Dutch knew he was good, knew he was important. But we didn't see this coming. What we are seeing is amazing."

One statistic is particularly astonishing. When he made his surging run past the Spanish defence for one of the goals that deposed the world champions, Robben was timed at running 31km/h.

Robben has always been quick but in the past, his pace was frequently compromised by injury. His two previous World Cups, in 2006 and 2010, were undermined by knocks.

Chelsea followers will remember him being struck down with niggles almost as a matter of course, every time he pulled on a blue shirt. His vulnerability undoubtedly stalled his attacking instincts, made him cautious and restrained.

Coupled with a propensity for going to ground at the merest hint of a following wind and an apparent allergy to passing the ball, he was not frequently found at the top of popularity polls in the English game. Not many thought Jose Mourinho had made a mistake when he let him go to Real Madrid in 2007.

It was not until he arrived at Bayern Munich in 2009, bought by his present national manager Louis van Gaal, that Robben finally began to shake off the injury blight and play to his potential. But even then, although his pace was more frequently unleashed, he remained essentially a peripheral player whose game was entirely predictable: if on the right, he would cut in to use his left foot; if on the left, he would stay there until he ran out of space.

It was not until Pep Guardiola arrived as Bayern manager last year the true Robben began to emerge. The Spaniard gave him a free role behind the central striker. From a one-dimensional flyer, he grew into a highly versatile playmaker.

Even so, his performances with the Netherlands at this tournament have been greater than anyone expected. Except, perhaps, van Gaal.

"Van Gaal is very good at letting important players know they are important," says Born. "He let Robben know he has faith in him."

That was done not just through verbal encouragement but by basing the entire Dutch game plan around him and fellow striker Robin van Persie. Playing a defensive 5-3-2 formation, van Gaal has gone into this competition utterly dependent on the pair's abilities on the breakaway. So far, it's working.

Not that everyone in Holland is delighted by the sight of Robben pinning back his ears after being released by a long ball hoicked out of defence.

To the purist brought up on Johan Cruyff and total football, it was reckoned close to sacrilege that, against the Spanish, the Dutch enjoyed only 35 per cent of the ball. Never mind the victory, think of the possession statistics.

It's an attitude with which van Gaal has little patience. As far as he is concerned, his counter-attacking system best exploits the strengths of the personnel available.

Facing down his critics after the victory over Chile, van Gaal was in characteristically prickly mood.

"The Dutch media needs to be convinced. I have to convince them," he said. "But this is proof of the pudding. We're not giving away very much, but we're creating a lot. If I didn't do that, you'd chop off my head. Me and my staff, we only ever want to score one goal more than the opponents."

That is, at least, the plan against Mexico tomorrow morning (NZT) and, with Robben in the mood, it's entirely possible.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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