Arjen Robben is the Dutch Rabbit. You better get a trap or a gun, if you want to stop him.
He usually hangs out wide on the right side. His heels on the touchline. He’s that far out because he wants to have every inch he can get. He’s going to receive the ball, look up, then take off, come right at you.
His go-to move is a cut to the center. He gives a juke, a burst of speed, or moves at an angle other guys can't cut.
He does the same thing pretty much all of the time, yet does it to great success. He’s predictable, while remaining nearly impossible to stop.
That’s called dominance.
If you don’t like the rabbit analogy, how’s a fighter jet taking on prop planes?
While dribbling, he touches the ball a lot, little touches, which help him keep control. They help him to quickly cut or juke, then he drives, and he can do so with speed and aggression.
But why cut to the center? Why make that way? Why not get the ball to the endline and knock it across the goal?
Watch what happens when he cuts to the middle:
Robben’s move inside gives him a chance to beat all four Stuttgart players while engaging the least amount of them. This is an ideal situation for an attacker: beat the most while taking on the least. Had Robben kept control of the ball as he drove toward the center, he would have had to beat only two to three defenders, not the whole four.
Mario Gomez demonstrates the second reason why Robben’s diagonal attack is so effective; it has a perfect complementary run. Gomez cuts toward the goal, ahead of Robben, and in the opposite direction of him. This movement blindsides the four engaged with the ball, and allows Gomez to lose his defender.
Robben threads the pass.
Stuttgart are lucky to recover.
Here’s another way the center cut works:
Robben is more advanced in this instance. He has more space and only one or two men to beat. While some attackers would make this a race to the endline, Robben directly engages the defender. He drives straight at the goal, making himself the focus of the attack, while knowing, in the end, he won't be. Philipp Lahm will overlap. Robben sets the move with a big touch away from goal, wrong-footing the defender and creating space for Lahm.
Robben slips the ball through.
Lahm to Gomez.
If positioning Robben wide right and allowing him to cut to the middle is so effective, why did Bayern’s coach, Pep Guardiola, play him out of position in the 2014 DFB Pokal final? Pep put him up top as a target striker. He played the tip of the attack, but you’re more like a distant fort when you’re playing up there. You’re holding territory. Advanced and alone.
Robben is a world-class winger. Asking him to play the target man is like asking Hendrix to play the drums.
The position involves a lot of running off the ball, a lot of getting knocked around by defenders. When the target man does get a pass, more likely than not, his back will be to the goal, and he’ll be laying the ball off to oncoming teammates.
This is not heels on the touchline, running through defenders, and making them look bad. This is being a cog in an offensive machine.
But, as always with Pep, there is a plan. Bayern Munich are facing Borussia Dortmund in the final, their biggest rivals. If Dortmund see Robben playing the winger spot on the right, they will feel prepared. Their coach, Jürgen Klopp, is beyond capable. His team will be as ready as it can be for defending Robben out wide.
Play Robben up front, the target man at the point of attack, and Dortmund will have to adjust.
Pep wants players who can play multiple positions. He needs Lahm to know how to control the center of the midfield, but also understand when to drop back and play full-back. He needs his goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, to play the ball with his feet as well as any field player can. He needs his players to uncouple their identity from a single role and to extend their skill set, so they can win on any spot of the field.
Robben is that type of player. He is as versatile as he is explosive. That’s why he’s perfect for Pep. All of Guardiola’s teams are explosive. In Marti Perarnau’s book, Pep Confidential, Perarnau paints an anxiety-riddled Guardiola. A man so afraid of his team being under attack that he overcompensates by insisting his team is constantly attacking.
The Pokal Final is in May, so Pep has had a whole season to oil his fine German-made machine. They clinch the Bundesliga with seven weeks left to play, and are feeling like they can cut the grass with their passes.
When, lo and behold, they show up to the Champions League Semifinals and get pounded.
5-0 by the end.
You play in enough elite compeitions and you're going to get a big beating from Madrid, but that was supposed to go better.
Now, all they have left is the Pokal*. They won the European Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup, but those tournaments feel insignificant. The big three -- the Bundesliga, the Pokal, and the Champions League -- win two of those and you had a fine season. Win just one?
Some people aren't satisfied with good.
The 4th minute, Bayern 0, Dortmund 0: Dortmund have a throw in.
They’re safe in their own half.
Bayern have backed off.
They look calm.
They look harmless.
It’s a bluff.
Dortmund throw the ball in to their right back, a Greek named Sokratis. As soon as his head goes down, the Bayern players sprint 10 yards up the field. Sokratis brings his head up, Bayern go still again. Back to calm and harmless.
To Sokratis, it all seems quiet. He passes the ball forward to this guy named Miloš, and once it’s clear that Miloš is getting the ball, the Bayern players spring to life again and they converge. Poor Miloš, he’s ambushed by four Bayern players.
As soon as Bayern look like they’ll win it, Robben, playing the target man, immediately stretches the defense. Bayern want to counter attack as soon as possible, and there’s a logic in that. An immediate attack is most effective because the time when a team is transitioning from offense to defense is when they are susceptible.
Possession needs to be won though. It’s Toni Kroos who does it. He controls the ball and initiates the attack with a single touch; his interception is a one-touch pass forward to Lahm.
It’s Lahm to Robben, which moves the ball at a near 90 degree angle up the field. Robben turns and takes a few dribbles forward. Thomas Müller is coming up on his right side, as fast as a runaway. Robben plays it to him. Müller is through to goal.
The 4th minute and already Dortmund is in trouble.
Müller’s shot bangs off the face of the Dortmund keeper.
The ball loops back to nearly half-field.
That’s how hard he hit it.
But Dortmund are safe again.
That was almost the start of a nightmare.
Good thing [keeper] Roman Weidenfeller has a giant head.
Unfortunately, for most of the first half, Robben is the victim of the target man’s biggest threat — receiving little service. Supplies have been cut off to the fort. He checks to balls, he makes crossing runs. The connections just aren’t being made, and that’s why I don’t like Robben playing the target position. He isn’t facing the goal with the ball at his feet enough. And I say this with pure bias. I want to see him 1 v 1 skinning guys. I love that he is willing to play out of position, that he’ll do it better than 95% of the other guys out there. But when he’s playing up top, I don’t get to see him doing what I love seeing him do.
It’s LeBron playing the five.
He’s not bad at it.
It’s just I know he can be great.
After halftime, Robben and Pep chat as they ride down the escalator.
The 46th minute, Bayern 0, Dortmund 0: Right off the kickoff, Dortmund knock the ball back to their defense, and Robben, in a sprint, follows. He closes the Dortmund player down so fast the player panics. He just kicks it — straight back to Bayern. They easily collect the ball.
That makes Pep’s anxiety lessen. Dortmund has lost an attack. Bayern has gained one. That’s what Bayern want. The odds of scoring are so low that, to win, they know they’ll need as many attacks as possible.
Robben is a piece that works at both ends. He kills the opponent’s attack, then finishes yours.
The 55th minute, Bayern 0, Dortmund 0: Bayern has been under assault. It’s been, thus far, Dortmund’s best spell. Bayern’s Dante saved a ball off the line — it might have gone in. Dortmund had a few legitimate cries for penalties, but nothing came of them.
The game is getting on and Dortmund look in the mood.
Robben is still playing the target man.
He’s up at the halfway line, surrounded by Dortmund yellow.
Defenders are on his back.
He’s gotten a few passes this half, but they’ve all come in too hot, too high, at his chest or his head, too difficult to control.
Bayern’s back three and a few midfielders are pinging the ball around the back. After the Dortmund bombardment, the Bayern backs seem content with keeping possession of the ball, settling the game.
It's a form of PTSD.
For Robben, this is downtime.
Easily, the target man becomes a bored left fielder.
Everybody else is doing something, and all Robben can do is sit there, jog for a second, look up.
He shows for the ball.
They don’t pass to him.
He trots back to his place at the very tip of the team.
Out on the iceberg.
Robben: I’ll be up here if you need me.
Back amongst the ugly sea of yellow.
The Bayern backs pass a few more horizontal zigzags.
Robben: Hey, guys?
Bayern Backs [they speak in unison]: Yeah.
Robben: Be nice to go get one now, right?
Bayern Backs: What?
Robben: Be nice to go get one now, right?
Bayern Backs: Okay.
Robben: So pass it up here.
Bayern Backs: What?
Robben: Pass the ball up here.
Bayern Backs: Pass it where?
Robben: Up here.
Bayern Backs: What? Really?
Robben: Up here!
Bayern Backs: Pep?
Pep: Give him the ball!
Robben is always eager to go forward, and this eagerness is a perfect counterweight to the back line’s desire to keep possession. This balance is by design. When the ball is in the back they must not lose it, but soon they have things under control, the players are in rhythm, they've advanced the ball up the field, and the attack needs to begin.
The Bayern Backs do what Pep says.
They knock the ball long up the field.
It’s heading right to Robben.
Robben: Thank god.
He sprints to it. He meets the ball at the halfway line. He’s got to jump up to get it. A defender is leaning on his back. He jumps too. Robben gets to it first: he gets his head on the ball, flicks it to the right, onto Franck Ribéry’s foot.
Ribéry is in.
Müller is in with him.
Ribéry gets it across.
Dortmund goalkeeper’s, Weidenfeller, again knows nothing about what he’s doing, but he saves the pointblank shot.
Saves it? Not really. He gets hit by it again. This time right between the knees.
There’s no goal there, but that’s how quickly Bayern rev this thing up.
The 77th minute, Bayern 0, Dortmund 0: Robben just fired another shot. It hit Weidenfeller square in the ribs. That’s the third time the Dortmund keeper never saw the shot coming, just got pelted with it.
It’s getting late now.
There needs to be a gear switched, and either Pep said something or Robben just did it, but Robben decides he’s going to switch positions with Müller. He’s going to play in his winger spot, and Müller will squat out on the iceberg.
Almost immediately, Müller gets a chance. He’s in the Dortmund penalty area. He’s squirming his way through. He loses possession.
Dortmund break. It’s Robert Lewandowski, the big Pole, cracking out of the Bayern press on the right side.
Robben takes off after him. A good chase is exactly what he needs. It’s one of those desperate sprints. The ones where you put your head down, get your legs pumping, your arms swinging, and you get that feeling like everything inside is going to pop. A voice inside is telling you, get home, man. Come on now, get home.
It’s a fretful high.
Lewandowski doesn’t make it far. He’s run down by a gang of Bayern players. They take the ball off him. Robben is amongst them.
His return to the winger spot, the few passes, the Lewandoski chase, it brings him the boost of energy he needs. He soon calls to Müller and the men switch again.
The Dortmund defenders give Robben smug welcomes.
He settles in again at the tip of the attack.
The 105th minute, Bayern 0, Dortmund 0: The 90 minutes are done, and so is the first half of extra time. Pep’s assistant is showing him some scrap of a tactic on a white board. Pep looks desperate for a solution, for something he can give his team to give it an edge.
But what can he say?
His team has hit the goalie in the head.
Hit him in the ribs.
Between the knees.
That’s harder to do than to score a goal.
The Bayern players don’t look worried. Robben and Müller ended the 90 minutes attacking. Kroos looks as fresh as the first minute. The players are like children living their lives, the coach is their parent. He sees all the potential downfalls. All the mistakes. They make him a wreck. The players don’t notice. They are too busy living.
The 107th minute, Bayern 0, Dortmund 0: Ribéry holds the ball deep in Dortmund’s territory, on the left side. Robben allows Müller to float through the box, then he wanders through his wake. Müller’s run makes the defense sag, the defenders track him. A pocket of space opens at the penalty spot, which Robben settles into.
Ribéry to Robben.
He hits it one-time.
It’s through the traffic.
But straight at Weidenfeller.
Another chance gone.
He looks at Ribéry, gives him a thumbs up.
Keep it coming.
Lady luck never sticks around too long.
Weidenfeller rolls the ball out short to his full-back.
It’s a poor choice.
Bayern’s Jérôme Boateng is over there.
The Dortmund defender doesn’t even get his foot on the ball.
Boateng whips a cross into the box. Three Dortmund players are beat to the back corner of the six yard box, where stands, our man, Robben. And that’s how quickly the house crumbles. That's how quickly you go from born under a lucky star to nothing but a lucky bastard, who finally got what was coming.
Robben: Save this one, you damn galoot.
Bayern go on to win the double.
* The DFB Pokal is a German-only, sixty-four team, knockout tournament. The winner gets a giant gold cup.