December 11, 2017

Neuer? Robben Deserved Our Ballon d’Or Love

Seven Bundesliga players made the first cut for the 2014 Ballon d’Or award: Mario Götze, Philipp Lahm, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer, Arjen Robben, and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Look closer and you’ll notice that 6 of the players on this list won the World Cup final in Brazil. Then there’s Arjen Robben. However, thanks to the World Cup, 2014 was the year of the German football. So we all know what happened next: Manuel Neuer made the final three cut for the prestigious award. I have half a hunch that the golden keeper was something like the “obligatory German candidate” (thank you, World Cup). And we all know that Cristiano Ronaldo won the award anyway. Given Germany’s World Cup triumph, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that Robben would pass up his German brethren as the Bundesliga’s “final three” Ballon d’Or candidate for 2014.

As a thought experiment, imagine that 2014 wasn’t a World Cup year. Now, try again: who would you select as the Bundesliga representative for the Ballon d’Or final three from the seven Bundesliga players listed above?  My choice is easy: Arjen Robben.

In all sincerity, I can’t think a better player for rounding out the Ballon d’Or final three. In other words, at the moment I would submit that Robben is the world’s best player after Ronaldo and Messi. Now that I’ve stated my main claim, let’s take this idea a step further by bracketing away the symbolic power that a World Cup brings a group of players – i.e. Germans! – and accept that the Neuer-led Germany won the 2014 World Cup. Even in this case, Robben is still my Bundesliga pick for the final three.

Since the World Cup forces itself on this debate, let’s start there. Lest you forget, Robben and his Dutch friends were only a game away from the World Cup final, losing on penalties to Argentina after a scoreless 125 minutes. In the consolation match against Brazil, the Dutchmen replied with a resounding 3-0 win to conclude their tournament. Not bad at all. As for Robben, well, the dodgy flapper scored 3 goals, assisted a goal, and contributed about 3 shot assists per match. Plus, he worked his usual dribbling magic (almost 5 such moments per match), but also cleanly distributed the ball with an 86% completion rate, all while drawing almost 5 called fouls a match. Oh, and did I mention he was clocked as the World Cup’s fastest man? Pretty damn good.

Of course, other attackers like Leo Messi and James Rodriguez had equally as brilliant, even arguably better World Cups than Robben. But the same charge could be leveled at Manuel Neuer, as Tim Howard and Keylor Navas arguably made outsized contributions as keepers than Neuer.

If only things were this simple. Of course, Neuer is a more than a keeper, given his ball / field / tackling skills, as the sweeper keeper craze caught fire at the World Cup. In cultural terms, Neuer became one of the 2-3 most recognizable names after the World Cup. He was, and remains, a big deal.

But I have to wonder, imagine if Robben had played for the World Cup winning side in 2014. Surely, he’s a lock to nab one of those Ballon d’Or final three slots, even if – imagine – the flying Dutchman was a scoreless dud in this hypothetical final. Surely. In other words, by merit alone, Robben had just as good, if not a better, World Cup than Neuer.

However, Robben’s work in the Bundesliga is where his value really shines. Of course, the flying Dutchman and the sweeper keeper both play for Pep Guardiola’s ungodly good Bayern side, and as Marti Perarnau’s Pep Confidential reveals, both players’ tactical toolkits and roles have evolved under the Spaniard’s tutelage, so in a sense their most recent successes stem from the same developmental context.

For example, we learn in Pep that immediately Robben’s role evolved to include more passing work around the box, more awareness of moving through spatial zones, and more work in restricting opponent’s space through defensive pressing. According to Perarnau’s narrative, Robben wholeheartedly threw himself into evolving and adapting to Pep’s system. Additionally, he started a demanding program of stretching, running, and other preventative work to keep his often-injured body healthy. Basically in Pep, Robben comes off as a consummate and passionate professional, who works harder than everyone else, and, like his excellence-driven coach, cares profoundly about improvement and winning.

In this light, Robben’s 2013-14 season, the World Cup, and the Hinrunde of 2014-15 are the fruits of the hard work and openness to change he’s embraced within Pep’s Bayern. Has the Dutchman ever been more dangerous?

No.

Moreover, readers of Perarnau’s Pep learn that Guardiola adapted his system to the winger-work of both Ribéry and Robben, who, as Pep concedes, make his attack possible. Indeed, as injuries decimated Bayern during 2013-14, Pep relied heavily on Robben to bail die Roten out of otherwise stalemated matches. For Bayern fans, at the very least, the last 18 months have been the era of Arjen Robben. And the numbers bear this out.

In the absence of any WAR-like statistic for football, I’m left with simply listing out Robben’s impressive numbers, while trying to contextualize his achievements. Start with Robben’s goal-scoring. On a Bayern side with a plethora of goal-scoring threats, Robben scored 11 in 2013-14 and already has scored 10 this season (2nd most in the league). As he’s really settled into Pep’s system, Robben has become perhaps the biggest goal-scoring threat for Bayern. His goals are opportune, as well. In just the last couple of matches, Robben’s goals sparked or secured Bayern wins, something that has happened repeatedly this season. When Bayern needs a goal, Robben is the man. His presence as Bayern’s premier goal scorer (Lewandowski who?) perhaps marks out the Dutchman’s most valuable role during the Pep-at-Bayern era.

By a country mile, Robben is the Bundesliga’s most dangerous man for sniffing out goals (sorry, Alex Meier, you beneficiary of attacking creativity from others!). You know the film: Robben receives the ball somewhere along Bayern’s right flank, he cuts in (that damned straight line – parallel to the goal mouth!), then somehow finds an angle, and gets off a laser of a tightly-fitted shot. It’s breathtaking.

However, during Pep’s tenure, Robben has also been picking up the ball around the middle (above the box) where he’s still able to utilize his brilliant dribbling skills in the tightest of spaces. This positional development seems to have opened more scoring opportunities for Robben. (Watch his average position drift toward the middle in this fun animation.)

Although Robben’s always has been decent-to-great in creating chances for others – e.g. from 2009-2014/15 Hinrunde, he’s registered 7, 8, 6, 7, 10, and 4 assists each season – he seems to be consistently more effective in this role under Pep. Last season, Robben had 10 assists, averaging 1.8 chances created for others a match. Yet this season, Robben is creating 2.9 chances a match (2nd best in the Bundesliga). Impressive work for the man who also possesses the league’s 2nd highest goal tally.

Moreover, Robben seems to have increased his ability to wreak havoc, as his dribbling rate (4.1 per match) has increased from a season ago (3 per match). Only Choupo-Moting, Bellarabi, and Firmino do more dribbling work than the Dutchman. Is it any accident that Robben’s ability to create chances has increased this season? Oh, and I nearly forgot that Robben leads the Bundesliga is shots per match (4.5), half of which are on target. He’s a terror.

And don’t forget: Robben is 31. Ted Knutson reminds us that Robben’s contributions are remarkable for a man his age.

*****

I started this piece by discussing both Robben and Neuer. Really, however, I didn’t write this piece to argue that Robben is more valuable than Neuer – these sorts of arguments are nearly impossible to take. Rather, I’m writing this piece to praise Robben. To remind you that Robben is having a remarkable 18 months. To make the case that the Dutchman is the Bundesliga’s best player right now. And to mark down that, at 31, Robben is at the peak of his powers. So take time to appreciate him, and his creative presence in the Bundesliga. We are fortunate. Every Bayern match – like every Real Madrid (Ronaldo!) or Barcelona (Messi!) match – contains the seeds of memorable football.

My own feelings about Robben have evolved. I used to loath the meme-making bald human ball with his flopping, arm flapping, parallel cuts across the goalmouth, and his damned leftfoot. He’s easy to hate. And I have a great excuse: he beat my Borussia Dortmund with that late goal in the Champions League final.

Somehow that UCL-winning goal marked the moment when I stopped loathing the Dutchman. Perhaps it was the euphoria of simply having BVB miraculously making the final that season (Malága, anyone?). Perhaps it was Robben’s own redemptive narrative. Or perhaps it simply was this image:

Arjen Robben, moments after scoring the UCL winning goal against BVB in 2013. (Photo by Andrew Yates, AFP)
Arjen Robben, moments after scoring the UCL winning goal against BVB in 2013. (Photo by Andrew Yates, AFP)

So here I am today: advocating for the flying Dutchman. If accepting the occasional moment of flopping is the price I must pay for acknowledging Robben’s brilliant, then I gladly pay the price of admission.

Let it be declared that the calendar year of 2014 in the Bundesliga was the year of Arjen Robben.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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