August 27, 2009 was one of the most fateful days in recent FC Bayern history. Arjen Robben transferred from Real Madrid, a move that would make him perhaps the smartest signing in club history.
Could he help turn Bayern into a football superpower? The odds were stacked against it, starting from the fact that he was sold for Real to improve their finances.
Back in the day, the ambitious Robben wasn’t so sure that going to Munich was the best way to rise to the top of European football. The club had not gotten past the Champions League quarters since 2001. Rebuilding efforts that started in 2007 had seemingly ground to a halt with the Jürgen Klinsmann coaching tenure.
When he entered the dressing room for the first time, Robben joined a team that searched for a playing style and identity. Divisive coach Louis van Gaal’s possession philosophy was not fully understood by the players. There was also Thomas Müller. The German could play on the right wing as well, and there were tensions between the two.
Despite the long odds and risks, Robben’s addition brought the club what it desperately needed- explosive pace, strong attacking instincts, understanding of the tactics and a hell of a left-footed shot.
Any awake observer saw that the presence of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben in their prime on both sides of the attacking midfield made FC Bayern a potent force. Robbery was born. Die Bayern went on a magical run after “waking up” in the final match of the Champions League group stage in December 2009.
Just when Manchester United seemed poised to stop that run at Old Trafford in April 2010, Arjen Robben came to the rescue. On a corner, he escaped markers. Franck Ribéry sent him a ridiculously high kick. When he one-timed it, the ball stuck to the ground and rolled in tight space, entering the goal just inside the far post. Any elite winger or striker could attempt that shot 1000 times and miss it 999 times. Robben converted that attempt when Bayern needed it to survive. It was pure magic. Pure Robben.
Inter Milan’s defensive machine choked Bayern in the Champions League final. They never looked able to win the game. However, this participation in the most prized match in club football set a new tone. The Bavarians did not win the title, but they were back among top clubs.
There were struggles in 2011 and 2012. Borussia Dortmund owned FC Bayern on all fronts. A terribly lucky and efficient Chelsea side benefitted from a major psychological meltdown to win the Champions League final in 2012… at the Allianz Arena. Arjen Robben was one of the players who showed the most heart, fighting for every ball, creating scoring chances and taking a penalty, but also missing. He got roundly criticized for being a selfish diva.
Multiple “close but no cigar” moments brought up uncomfortable questions. In the summer of 2012, Bayern had twice failed to win the European Cup that evaded them since 2001. Led by Jürgen Klopp and his heavy metal football, Borussia Dortmund bossed the Bundesliga. Jupp Heynckes’ methods and tactics did not convince everyone.
What transpired, through interviews in the following years, is that the entire team knew it was on a mission right after the Champions League final disaster. It had to win everything in 2013.
And boy, did it accomplish its mission. A group of players anchored around Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Müller and Franck Ribéry steamrolled on their way to the Champions League final in May 2013.
Arjen Robben seemed bound to be the odd man out. He missed 17 matches due to various injuries and was slightly out of favour. Robben only played 16 Bundesliga games and Heynckes could count on a trio made of Ribéry, Kroos and Müller in the attacking midfield, behind striker Mario Mandzukic.
Robben could have gone to the final and have watched it from the bench alongside Mario Gomez, but Lady Luck gave him a hug and a kiss. In April that year, Toni Kroos picked up an injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season. Heynckes had a major decision to make with a potential treble on the horizon. He moved Müller to the 10 position and put Robben on the right wing.
The Flying Dutchman saw his chance to earn redemption. He helped the team to clinch the league and qualify for the Champions League final. Borussia Dortmund made that match fiercely competitive. They threatened early. Mandzukic opened the score (60′), but the yellow and black earned a penalty that Ilkay Gundogan put in (68′).
The game remained tight until the 89th minute. Overtime was looming, but Bayern players showed their character. In his own half, Jérôme Boateng spotted Franck Ribéry up the pitch. He sent him a long aerial ball. Under pressure, Ribéry struggled to control it, but a backheel pass went through and bounced on a defender. Robben burst through the defense, took the ball, jumped over a Mats Hummels tackle, drifted to his left and cut back a shot that beat Roman Weidenfeller.
When Robben went one-on-one with the BVB keeper, scores of Bayern fans had horrible flashbacks. A moment later, the ball rolled very slowly towards an empty goal. Worldwide, Bayern fans jumped up and screamed. A few minutes of energetic and desperate defending were enough to seal the title, sending Robben sliding on his knees, pumping both fists and screaming. The ambitious Dutchman had fulfilled a dream. He also found redemption.
Were you involved in a year-end review in 2013, you had to consider Robben as the best individual player on the team. That “position” was easy to confirm in the two following seasons, with 28 goals in the Bundesliga and four more in the Champions League.
At the time, Robben was at the height of his powers. Everybody in football knew his patterns. He would often run down the right wing and cut inside to shoot, or go lower to pass. Yet, few defenders and keepers could stop him. His speed, instinct and accuracy made the predictable almost irrepressible.
In 2015 and beyond, Robben slowly entered his decline, but he remained a threat and kept producing magic moments. Even in 2018, his old patterns still dazzle. Ask the Benfica defenders what they think of Robben’s performance in late November.
As I write this, Arjen Robben has recorded 267 appearances for Bayern. He scored 98 times in the league and 31 more times in other competitions.
When he joined in 2009, the man was a potential star for the Bavarians. In early 2014, he said: there’s no bigger club than FC Bayern. Today, he’s a legend to whom we owe enduring memories.
When Arjen Robben walks off the pitch for the last time as a Bayern player, millions of fans will try to fight back tears. Most will lose that battle, and I will be among them.
Thank you, Arjen Robben! You’re not gone yet, and I already miss you.
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