Euro 2012: The Curious Case of Arjen Robben


After being substituted in the EURO 2012 Group match against Germany, Dutch winger, Arjen Robben decided to take the shorter route by jumping over the advertisement boards on the other end of the pitch, thus ignoring the customary manner of player substitutions. He also considered a handshake with the player he was substituted with unnecessary.  He looked far from happy to say the least, with the Netherlands trailing by a solitary goal and ten odd minutes to go he believed the substitution was ill timed. He made it amply clear by taking his shirt off on his way to the Netherlands bench.

This post takes a look at the 28-year old Robben's dip in form, which has coincided with the Netherlands losing both their group matches. They are perilously close to exiting the tournament at the group stage itself, an embarrassment of sorts for a team touted among the favorites to win the tournament.

The current season

One needs to look at Robben's statistics during the 2011-2012 season at Bayern Munich. He played 36 matches in total, contributing 18 goals and 6 assists to aid the cause of his team. It is interesting to note that out of the 116 shots on goal, 50 were on target. This does indicate the buccaneering nature of his game play, designed to operate on either flank, cutting in and taking efforts on goal. This also seems to suggest a lack of discipline on his part.

Now, his Champions League statistics last year paint a clearer picture. He played 8 matches overall, contributing 4 goals and just 1 assist. He had 31 shots to show for his effort, 21 of which were off target. He does like shooting, that is for sure. Whether that helps the team or works to the disadvantage of his teammates, is another question.

The Champions League final at Munich is a case in point. He was intent on running at defenders, cutting in and taking shots on goal. Agreed, the idea of proving his worth against an old club might have played on his minds but the nature of play and the statistics seem to suggest that he was just being himself. In the final, he had 15 shots overall, out of which only 1 was on target. He has been doing that his entire career. Robben is a flair player, with bags of talent and it is only justified that he backs himself to score every single time.

How does Robben compare with other players?

I select Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria and Juan Mata for a comparison with Arjen Robben to how Robben has not done what is expected of a player of Robben's talent. Some readers may not agree with my choice of Ronaldo as he has been playing at a level higher than every other player, except Messi over the last few seasons. But I see similarities in the way Robben plays with how Ronaldo used to play in his initial years. Angel Di Maria is an out and out winder a la Robben and Juan Mata has been the fulcrum of Chelsea's playmaking over the course of last season.

Cristiano Ronaldo 

Ronaldo played 67 matches in total last season, contributing 71 goals and 16 assists in the process. He had 400 shots in total, out of which 158 were on target. One can argue against his ability to provide assists, but then at Madrid he is the fulcrum of any attack and plays almost in a free role. Robben is more restricted, at least on the strategy board at Munich.

It is interesting to note that for every match played, he had six shots taken against Robben's three. Clearly for someone who insists on taking shots at his whims, the number is not anywhere as impressive as Ronaldo's.

Also, 16 assists overall would be considered good for a player in a season. It is by the stratospheric goal scoring record of Ronaldo, that 16 looks a measly number.

Angel Di Maria

In the 2011-12 season, Di Maria played 42 matches in total, scoring 10 goals and provided 18 assists. That is more than the 15 assists provided by Frank Ribery at Bayern Munich in 56 matches. One needs to highlight that Di Maria did not play as many matches as he would have liked to because of injuries. But whenever he played, as his La Liga tally of 5 goals and 15 assists in 23 matches would attest, he provided the assists in good measure. He is fast, technically sound and has a mean cross that his own teammate Ronaldo can testify to.

Robben is considered in the same vein. Extremely pacey with an ability to deliver deadly crosses for the likes of Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose at Bayern Munich. But his statistics look patchy when compared to what Di Maria managed to do in his injury marred time at the Bernabeu.

Juan Mata

The diminutive winger or attacking midfielder formerly at Valencia played 65 matches overall, contributing 16 goals and 22 assists. Although he had only 109 shots in total, he shot 48 of them at goal.  One needs to look at the assists column. Given Chelsea's otherwise patchy form throughout the season, except in knockout ties, Mata's statistics seem pretty impressive. Add to that the fact that he was playing for the first time in England, they look even prettier.

The analysis makes it very clear that Robeen did not achieve the levels of greatness his talent demands. His numbers are good but nowhere near as impressive as that of his contemporaries.

Why always Robben?

Critics have always been vocal about Robben's allegedly selfish attitude on the pitch. Franz Backenbauer lashed out at Robben for not giving enough credit to the teammates when he scores a goal. 

"There will come a moment where his team-mates will think: 'If I give you the ball and don't get the recognition for it, come and get the ball yourself next time.' Bachenbauer said about Robben when asked by Sky90.

There are countless others who have resented Robben's selfish approach to football. 1990 World Cup Winner Thomas Berthold even suggests Robben is carrying psychological baggage of his irregular season at Bayern Munich ending in Champions League and German Cup losses.

"I fear for Robben's state of mind, where things are decided in the subconscious..." Berthold told Eurosport.

Robben himself has never denied that he is selfish.

"Attackers have to be selfish on the pitch occasionally, but it's important not to exaggerate...Selfishness is a quality and not necessarily a bad thing." Robben said.

Robben also received support from Netherlands teammates such as Rafael Van der Vaart who believed Robben had added goal scoring to his arsenal. He told the German daily Bild that 'In his first few years at Bayern, Arjen played exactly the same way he is now, he just scored a few more goals,'

All this talk of Robben being selfish shall be forgotten by one and all if it brings more goals and wins trophies for his team. But on the evidence of statistics for this season, Robben has a lot to do. Agreed, he has not had much luck with injuries, but even when he has played, he has not shown any inclination to tone down his selfish attitude. Should he? I think he should carry on playing in a way that he feels most comfortable. But he should back it up by scoring goals like Ronaldo has been doing at Real Madrid.

As for his reaction to being benched against Germany, it can be reasoned that he believed he could help his side level the score against the Germans. Passions run high against their archrivals, so disappointment at being substituted is understandable. If he jumped over the hoardings to save time, it is not reason enough. He could very well have sprinted across to the touchline. Solidarity in a team sport such as football is paramount. It is equally important to exhibit unity on the pitch, even though one may not be on the same page as some teammates. The team is bigger than the individual, goes the cliché.

All is not lost for the mercurial winger though. The Netherlands has one last match to play in the group stages at EURO 2012. If they beat Portugal by more than 2 goals and Germany thrash Denmark, they could win a place in the knockout stages. Robben has a chance to silence his critics and what better way to do that than to bulge the net a few times.