Arjen Robben is in the form of his life under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich and is earning the right to be mentioned in the top bracket, writes Adam Bate…
“I'm in love with Arjen. In the whole of my career as player and coach, I’ve maybe seen one or two players who are as professional as Arjen. He has an unbelievable mentality.” – Pep Guardiola
Not everyone anticipated the professional love affair that has developed between Pep Guardiola and Arjen Robben. In fact, even months before the Spaniard assumed control at Bayern Munich there was speculation that the incoming coach would make the Dutch winger the first casualty of his reign. "Guardiola singled out Robben for the exit after deciding he was too limited in his attacking forays," claimed the Daily Mail.
It became clear from the laughing and joking between the pair at their very first training session together that the antipathy had been overstated. Instead, Robben has flourished and at the age of 31 is scaling hitherto unseen heights under Guardiola. "He's improved us and made us more unpredictable," Robben told France Football recently. "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."
Not only is Robben continuing to inspire Bayern - the club is well on its way to a record-equalling third consecutive title - but he is producing the sort of goalscoring exploits that he's not managed before in his career. He's already surpassed his best-ever tally and is currently the second highest scorer in the Bundesliga with 17 goals. Robben's boyhood hero was Romario but it's doubtful whether anyone expected him to be replicating the brilliant Brazilian's numbers in front of goal.
Robben has 11 goals in his last 10 Bundesliga games
In the past three months, Robben has scored 11 goals in 10 Bundesliga games. Cristiano Ronaldo has managed only seven in 10 in La Liga during that same period. Certainly nobody in Germany has had an answer. Guardiola admitted it was Robben's quality that made the difference in the 2-0 win over Stuttgart last month with even opposition coach Huub Stevens rhetorically asking "what can you do when Robben has a shot like that?"
Bastian Schweinsteiger requested that Robben be given penalty-taking responsibilities in a 6-0 win over FC Paderborn on the basis that the Torjagerkanone scoring title is in his sights. Eintracht Frankfurt striker Alexander Meier is currently one ahead of him but even he's not optimistic, recently telling AZ "he scores one or two goals every game" with an air of exasperation. It's no wonder when Robben is even scoring with his right foot as he did against Hamburg last month.
I think he's the best outfield player in the world at the moment.
The other aspects of his game remain. Robben ranks third in the Bundesliga for assists, third for dribbles and sixth for chances created. Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has seen enough. "I've been saying it for over a year, I think he's the best outfield player in the world at the moment," said Rummenigge. "He's world class at the moment and virtually unstoppable. He dribbles, he's quick and he scores bags of goals. We're really happy he’s playing for Bayern Munich."
So how has he done it? It's difficult to look past the influence of Guardiola. The coach has not merely utilised Robben's traditional strengths of getting to the touchline or cutting inside to score. Instead he's looked for more, allowing Robben to roam in central areas and get the width from elsewhere. Regular formation changes have facilitated the evolution of a player some wished to typecast as one-dimensional.
That view never really stood up to scrutiny. After all, Robben has a history of having switched positions to memorable effect in some of the biggest games around. He has been used as a second-striker in two World Cups and his positional change in the 2013 Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund yielded Bayern's winning goal at Wembley.
But Robben has embraced change like never before under Guardiola. In particular, he's revelled in the interplay with Thomas Muller that's been a feature of Bayern's flexibility. "We use all kinds of formations with Pep and this means I can play inside or outside, just behind the strikers or even as a striker," said Robben in a recent interview in The Guardian. "That's fantastic because the way he wants to play, with a very dominant style, suits me perfectly."
As a result, as unlikely as it might seem, he’s getting better. "There's always so much to improve, no matter your age," he added. "That's why I'm really enjoying working with Pep. I learn from him every day and that's a special feeling. People always say young players can learn a lot and even at 26, 27 you can still make big steps. Then, it's expected you stay at that level or go down... Under him, I have made more steps in my development. I've come quite a long way these 18 months."
Perhaps that explains why Robben has refused to confirm when he plans to retire from international football. He can hardly be blamed in his current form and he's entitled to be excited about where it could take him. That uncanny ability to maintain his pace into his thirties makes him a particularly dangerous opponent - a fusion of pace and experience that is seldom seen.
Live UEFA Champions League
Bayern take on Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Wednesday with the tie poised after a goalless draw in Lviv. In his new role as top goalscorer and talisman, the onus will be on Robben to deliver and Guardiola will expect a performance from the old man who’s his new Messi. And with the Dutchman improving all the time, the smart money is on an extended honeymoon for this unlikely Bavarian bromance.
Watch Bayern Munich v Shakhtar Donetsk live on Sky Sports 1 HD this Wednesday from 7.40pm