This article originally featured on Tale of Two Halves back in August 2019.
Arjen Robben’s final statement, the announcement of his decision to retire from the game – after 18 years as a professional, came courtesy of a press release.
“I have been thinking a lot over the past few weeks. As everyone knows, I took the time to make an informed decision about my future after my last Bayern Munich match. And I decided to put an end to my career as a professional football player.
“It is without doubt the hardest decision I have had to make in my career. A decision where heart and mind collided. The love for the game and the conviction that you can still handle the whole world, as opposed to the reality that not everything runs the way you want and you are no longer the 16-year-old boy who had no idea what an injury meant. At the moment I am fit and healthy and as a fan of many other sports I want to keep it that way in the future. So I will definitely stop, but that’s a good thing.”
It was late last year that the 35-year-old had confirmed the 2018-19 campaign will be the end of his Bavarian sojourn. Speaking to Omnisport, Robben had then said: “It’s my last year at Bayern. It has been 10 beautiful years. But it’s time [to leave] now.”
During his decade-long stint at the club, Robben scored 144 goals (and made 101 assists) in 309 appearances in all competitions – 99 goals in 201 games in the Bundesliga and won a total of 20 titles – twice the number he won at three of his other major clubs combined. His swansong year though was an injury-ravaged one, keeping the number of his appearances to a minimum.
However, such is his pedigree and class that when the Dutchman eventually brought the curtains down to his time in Munich, many expected (and predicted) he was still keen on adding a new chapter to his professional career. There was no dearth of clubs trying to secure his signature. From his native Netherlands to Italy to Portugal to the Far East [China and Japan] to American Major League Soccer, Robben was linked to a plethora of clubs. The pragmatic Dutchman albeit was focusing on his fitness before deciding on his next move.
“I have not yet made a decision about my future. I have pushed my future aside a bit in recent months, I first wanted to be completely fit again,” Robben said, while speaking to TZ. “I still enjoy playing football and would rather not stop. On the other hand, I don’t want to go through another five months of what I’ve been through in recent months.”
In the final analysis, it was the fitness factor, as also the fact that he couldn’t have possibly achieved as much with another club as he did with Bayern Munich that led to his eventual decision to call it quits.
Double delight makes it a perfect swansong
After promising a different outcome for a significant part the 2018-19 Bundesliga season eventually had a predictable end. Bayern had indeed clinched their 28th German title. Not only that they added a 19th DFB-Pokal, thereby completing a 12th domestic double.
Despite being well below their best for most parts, and trailing Borussia Dortmund by as many as nine points at one stage, Die Roten thrashed Eintracht Frankfurt 5-1 at the Allianz Arena on the final day of fixtures to ensure the Meisterschale remains in Munich for a seventh successive season.
It was the first time since 2009 – when VfL Wolfsburg won their first and so far only title, that the Meisterschale wasn’t decided until the final match-day.
Coincidentally the player who scored Bayern’s final goal against Eintracht joined the Bavarians soon after that, ahead of the 2009-10 season. In the years that followed Robben not only became a key player but also cemented his place among the pantheon of Bayern greats.
“Today was important. You put everything into it and want to, of course, enjoy your last game here, in your own stadium with your own fans,” Robben told bundesliga.com after the game.
“This had to be something big along with the championship and it was a happy ending.”
In the final analysis with Bayern winning the title, and Robben being on the score-sheet, it will be considered a happy ending, but the Bedum-born definitely deserved better than being confined to substitute appearances. The Dutchman’s farewell season was anything but a memorable one.
It had nothing to do with Bayern’s patchy performances but the fact that Robben hardly got to play. The attacker had only featured 15 times in all competitions when injury kept him out of action for several months.
Robben’s last UEFA Champions League game (on 27 November 2018) saw him score a brace in a 5-1 win against SL Benfica – Bayern later bowed out of the competition, losing to Liverpool in the round of 16. Thereafter, back to back injury issues scuppered his attempts at a comeback.
“It’s very, very frustrating,” Robben told Bild in March. “We’ve tried everything, but for now it doesn’t work. Unfortunately, that is the problem: we don’t know what it is. It’s really difficult. Twice I’ve almost returned to the team, and again there was a relapse.”
It was not until early May, with just three league matches to go, that Robben belatedly returned from a calf injury, replacing Kingsley Coman in the 86th minute of the match against Hannover 96, in what was his 700th professional appearance.
The following week he replaced the Frenchman again, this time in the 89th minute, in the away game against RB Leipzig. Against Eintracht, he was a substitute again, albeit given a few more minutes. Coming in for Serge Gnabry in the 67th minute, the Dutchman tapped in his final league goal for Bayern 11 minutes later.
A week later, in the German Cup final against RB Leipzig at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, Robben made another cameo appearance – again as a replacement for Gnabry, making an entry in the 73rd minute even as Bayern went onto win.
The league and cup medals notwithstanding, four appearances from the bench is hardly a perfect end to a stellar career, as Robben’s. That said, despite that not-so-memorable conclusion Robben’s decade in Bavaria was memorable in more ways than one and definitely a career-defining stint, especially considering the fact that he was hesitant to move to southern Germany in the first place.
A reluctant addition
Robben had been a champion in the Netherlands, with PSV Eindhoven (2003). He had won a plethora of trophies during his time in the Premier League (2004-07), with Chelsea. And he was then playing for the world’s biggest club, Real Madrid and was also doing well.
After helping the club win La Liga in his debut season (2007-08), with multiple games to spare, in his debut season Robben not only played an important role in the following campaign – eight goals in 35 games in all competitions, but also was a key figure in the pre-season games – three goals and four assists – leading up to the 2009-10 season.
There was no need for Real to sell him. Neither did the player want to leave. Why would he?
However, the dynamics changed following the return to power of Florentino Perez, coupled with the arrivals of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. Robben, deemed as a surplus to requirements, was literally forced out of the team.
“We were told that the club would be able to make some money on me if they sold me, but I initially didn’t want to leave,” the Dutchman confessed during an interview with Fox Sports.
“I had possibly my best pre-season ever, but I still didn’t get a chance, so I had to make a decision. It was a bit of a weird summer with the return of Florentino Perez as president and then all the new signings arrived. Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso all came to Madrid for a huge amount of money.”
Robben also admitted it was difficult for him to move to Bavaria considering Bayern were not a top club at the time, having not made a Champions League semi-final appearance in eight years.
“It was a difficult decision, the most difficult one of my career. Bayern were not among the European elite at that moment and it was a step back for me,” he explained in that interview.
However, so desperate were the powers to be at Madrid that they didn’t mind offloading Robben, even at a loss, selling him for around 25 million euros as opposed to the 35 million paid to acquire him from Chelsea.
Amid all his hesitation and reluctance Robben eventually found a reason to move to Munich. Actually two of them!
Legendary manager Louis van Gaal had taken up the coaching role at the Bundesliga giants that summer, following his successful spell at AZ Alkmaar, and another compatriot, Mark van Bommel had recently been installed as the club’s first ever non-German captain following the retirement of club legend Oliver Kahn.
Robben admitted he would never have considered joining Bayern had his two countrymen not been at the club.
“Of course, this is important as a player. You have to know what they are planning with you. If Van Gaal and Van Bommel had not been here, I do not know if I would have come here, he told Bayern blog Miasanrot.de.
“It was important that they were here. Maybe it sounds like Bayern would not have been for me otherwise, but that’s football. For me, the right people were here at the right time and that’s why I made that decision.
“It was also good for the club, I think. I also said that was the most important decision of my career.”
Despair & Redemption
In his first season in Germany, Robben helped Bayern win the domestic double and reach the Champions League final at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, where his former manager Jose Mourinho’s current team (Inter Milan) proved to be too strong.
Besides helping his new club succeed Robben also scored 23 goals in 37 games (in all competitions) and was named Footballer of the Year in Germany for 2010, only the fourth foreigner and the first Dutchman to win the honour. It is imperative here to mention of the instant partnership he formed with Franck Ribery, dubbed the ‘Robbery’ in the German media. The Frenchman had joined Bayern a year before but has bid adieu to the club at the same time as Robben.
While injuries resurfaced to ensure the 2010-11 season wasn’t as memorable, Robben returned to help Bayern to the 2012 Champions League final, scoring twice in the quarter-final second leg against FC Basel – Bayern were beaten in the first leg – and an important goal in the semi-finals against former club Madrid.
The final was at the Allianz Arena, Bayern’s ground, and there was despair in store for Robben and the home team. His extra-time penalty was saved by former teammate Petr Cech and worse, Chelsea went on to win the eventual penalty shootout.
For the second time in Bayern colours Robben had been at the receiving end in a Champions League final, and on this occasion, it had been his fault. Three days later when he played in a friendly in the same ground he was jeered by some disgruntled Bayern supporters every time he touched the ball.
Not to forget just weeks before he had missed a late penalty, and then a golden chance in injury time, as Bayern suffered a 1-0 defeat at Borussia Dortmund to all but hand Jurgen Klopp’s side the title.
The Dutchman started the 2012-13 season on the bench, eventually got his place in the starting line-up again and subsequently played a crucial role in helping his club to another domestic double.
Redemption albeit happened in the Champions League.
After scoring in both legs of the semi-final, even as FC Barcelona was whipped 7-0 on aggregate, Robben played a starring role in the final against Dortmund at Wembley, setting up Mario Mandzukic’s opener before hitting a late winner.
It was Bayern’s fifth success in Europe’s premier tournament, and Robben’s first. He had been third time lucky.
“The best thing about football and sport in general, is that if you suffer a big disappointment then there is no better feeling than coming back the following year and doing well,” Robben told The Guardian.
“At the start of that season, I was so motivated. It was not only me but everybody in the squad. It sounds like a cliche but you felt this determination to make up for everything. Our reaction was very special.”
The Dutchman finished the 2013-14 season with 21 goals in 45 games (all competitions), 2014-15 with 19 goals (30 games), the 2016-17 season with 16 goals (37 games) and the 2017-18 campaign with seven goals in 34 games even as Bayern won the Bundesliga in each of those seasons while also reaching at least the last eight of the Champions League.
In 2015-16 injuries restricted him to only 21 appearances, 15 in the league. Still, he helped Bayern win the double, his fourth with the club. His success in the south of Germany made him appreciate his decision to join them, despite the initial hesitation.
“I’ve been at some of the top clubs in the world and played under a lot of great coaches but I feel as happy as I’ve ever been at Bayern,” Robben was quoted as saying by France Football magazine.
Besides the many trophies and individual honours won in Munich, Robben also worked on something that he will be remembered for, long after his playing career is over.
How many players in the history of game can be credited with a signature move?
Johan Cruyff. Garrincha. Antonin Panenka. Diego Maradona. Rene Higuita. Cristiano Ronaldo. Ricardo Quaresma. Maybe a few others…who either perfected or modified a particular trick.
Add Robben to the list. His signature move is labelled Le Robben.
While he first regularly played as an inverted winger during his time in Madrid, the Dutchman perfected the role (and the trick) following his move to Bayern.
On second thoughts perfect is not the right word. He patented it. The sight of Robben cutting in off the right wing to curl into the far corner with his left foot became a regular one in subsequent years.
The Dutch forward has been performing the same trick for years…to the point that it has become repetitive, yet opponents struggle to read it, let alone decipher and nullify the move.
“Yes, it’s a weapon,” Robben was quoted as saying by ESPN FC. “When something works, you just keep going. But I’m not the right person to explain why it works.”
How about some Pep talk?
For someone who has been managed by eminent names like Guus Hiddink, Mourinho, Van Gaal and Jupp Heynckes, it would be difficult to pick a personal favourite, one may think.
Robben is palpably grateful to all his managers for their contributions at the various stages of his career, and also remains particularly indebted to Van Gaal for bringing him to Bavaria.
“The best and most important step of my career was when I moved here – and Louis van Gaal brought me from Madrid to Bayern. It was the best move of my career and it’s thanks to him. Van Gaal made me an important member of the team and fortunately I delivered,” he told Guardian.
However, his absolute favourite happens to be Pep Guardiola.
“When I started here with Pep Guardiola, who for me is maybe the best manager there is at the moment. Normally, at my age — I started with him at 29 — normally you say you’re not really going to improve yourself again and make steps,” Robben explained during an interview with Daily Mail.
“But with him I think I still developed as a player and made some small steps and improved some little things and that’s interesting.
“He’s just a very special guy in terms of tactics in the game and the way he improves the game. He loves football. But he loves to have the ball. He doesn’t love to run after the ball. It’s just interesting the way he lives and breathes football for 24 hours a day. It’s always difficult to say the best period — but I really, really loved it.
“I’m a big Pep fan.”
The feeling is mutual with the media quoting the Spaniard as saying, “I’m in love with Arjen Robben … he has an unbelievable mentality.”
While the Dutchman’s role was uncertain upon the Spaniard’s arrival Robben nonetheless flourished under his stewardship, playing under Guardiola between 2013 and 2016, and winning the Bundesliga in all the three years and the DFB-Pokal twice. Not to forget he remained in peak form and fitness during that three-year period, and admits he played the best football of his career during that time. However, while many consider the years 2013 and 2014 to be the peak of his career, Robben has a slightly different view.
“If you look back and ask, ‘Was it your best period?’ I think, maybe, yeah. It’s always difficult as well because normally it always goes with titles. If you win a title, win the Champions League, reach the World Cup final, everybody notices it even more.
“But maybe, for example, the year after the World Cup, with Pep, I think, maybe that was my best year but we didn’t win the Champions League or there was no international tournament,” he told the Daily Mail.
His best days were well behind him but Robben nonetheless contributed to the team’s cause in his twilight years.
“Our president at the club (Uli Hoeness) always says, “You don’t have young or old players, you have good ones and bad ones”. I’m not young any more, not in football at least. I’m still there, playing as a winger at one of the best clubs in Europe, so that’s something quite special and that’s why I have to enjoy it,” he explained.
His contribution in the 2017-18 season, though curtailed, was crucial to Bayern winning the league for a sixth straight year. For Robben it was his seventh Bundesliga title, helping him set a Dutch record by winning his 11th career domestic league title, surpassing the legendary Johan Cruyff’s record of 10 career domestic league titles in the process.
While he decided to leave Bayern after a decade of service it wasn’t an easy decision to make.
“It was a big step, to finish your career here at an amazing club after 10 amazing years,” explained Robben. His swansong year wasn’t a perfect one. However, despite the many setbacks – he had thigh problems, calf problems and even a rotten tooth, the Dutchman remained confident he would play again before the season ended.
“These are my last two months at a club where I have spent 10 years. I want to play again, to pull on the shirt one more time. That is the most important thing for me. I don’t care which game it is,” Robben told Abendzeitung at a charity event in March.
A few weeks later he was back on the field, getting a chance to end his time in Munich on a triumphant note.
“It would be sensational [to score],” admitted the Bayern No.10, “I’ve played out the game on Saturday (against Eintracht) three times in my head.
“Those were just dreams, but you have to make dreams come true and I’m convinced that it can happen,” he added. The Dutchman did score even as he added an eighth Meisterschale to his already impressive resume.
It is, therefore, no surprise that Robben decided the decade in Bavaria would be the final chapter of his illustrious professional career.