Robben kept coming back for more and got his final reward

Outside the box: Ken Early column

Arjen Robben slides the ball past Borussia Dortmund’s goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller during their Champions League Final at Wembley Stadium. Photograph: Phil Noble

Arjen Robben slides the ball past Borussia Dortmund’s goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller during their Champions League Final at Wembley Stadium. Photograph: Phil Noble

Mon, May 27, 2013, 13:00

What goes through the mind of a striker as he runs through on goal? Apparently quite a lot. Wayne Rooney says that at these moments, time seems to slow down and he perceives details with unusual clarity. Fernando Torres says that when he ran through to score against Germany in the final of Euro 2008, he had time to consider the effect the rain on the surface would have on his shot. Tony Cascarino explained in his autobiography that he used to have entire conversations with himself during one-on-one situations.

Some strikers scan their memories for the lessons of experience. When Maradona took the ball around Peter Shilton to score his second in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final, it was because he had remembered shooting wide against Shilton in a similar situation six years earlier.

Maybe the reason Bayern Munich are champions of Europe today is that at last, in a final, Arjen Robben found himself in a one-on-one with no time to think.

The goal that won the cup captured Robben’s strengths and weaknesses pretty well. His speed took him through the defence. His control allowed him to evade the desperate challenge of Hummels. His lack of faith in his right foot meant he took an unexpected extra touch that possibly helped to confuse the goalkeeper, and maybe his tortured history of missing crucial chances in finals meant he scuffed the finish. It all happened so fast that he had no time to beat himself up.

It’s probably just as well that he did not seem to look at the goal until the ball was already rolling past the wrong-footed Weidenfeller. Given his history – missing the chance that should have won Holland the World Cup in 2010, missing the penalty that should have won Bayern the Champions League last year – you can imagine just how tiny the goal might have looked.

The strike proved something else about Robben besides the fact that he can put away a high-pressure one-on-one if you give him enough goes at it. It was only because he was making yet another hopeful run forward that a lucky bounce on the edge of the box turned into the perfect set-up. Robben kept missing chances but he kept coming back to try again. Whatever people say about him – and he has been accused of selfishness, stupidity, even physical cowardice – he doesn’t hide. He has character as well as talent.

Redemption
His manic celebrations, his eyes almost popping out of his face, showed that, whatever else was going through his mind at that moment, he had understood the stakes. He has had a brilliant career, winning league titles in four countries, and yet he and everyone else knew that if that ball had not gone in, it all would have been tinged with failure and ridicule. Even Bayern Munich can’t expect to get to a Champions League final every year. Miss that chance and Robben would have failed four times in four finals in four seasons. Who could have begrudged him his redemption?

It was also a sweetly redemptive moment for Jupp Heynckes, who has the unique distinction of winning the Champions League with two clubs who had already decided to fire him. The question of how Pep Guardiola takes things forward from here will be one of the biggest stories in European football next season.

Common sense says that Guardiola would be crazy to change much about such a formidable team. But what’s the point of hiring Guardiola if you don’t expect him to impose his own way of doing things? It could turn out that Guardiola is more adaptable than people expect him to be. Maybe his Barcelona style of play was simply what he considered to be best for Barcelona. Maybe he has something else in mind for Bayern, who face different challenges in a very different league.

However, the evidence of his time at Barcelona suggests otherwise. Guardiola’s team was the best in the world, but if it had a weakness it was the tendency towards monoculture. His vision was of a team of 11 midfielders. Orthodox strikers and defenders were phased out as Guardiola strove towards that ideal. He developed a team that could keep the ball all day but struggled to defend balls above knee height, as Bayern expertly exposed in the first leg of the semi-final.

There was another aspect of Guardiola’s stewardship at Barcelona that might concern his new employers. Bayern thrive on big-money signings. They are already doing their best to squash the Dortmund insurrection by signing Mario Götze and, it seems, Robert Lewandowski.

Player trading was not Guardiola’s strongest suit. For whatever reason, many of his signings struggled to integrate. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not the only player to arrive at Barcelona for a gigantic fee only to discover that nobody had quite figured out what to do with him. Dmytro Chygrynskiy, Alexander Hleb, Martin Caceres, and Keirrison cost a combined €70 million and made zero impact. The likes of David Villa and Javier Mascherano did better, but they have had to learn to play new positions, and it’s difficult to argue that either man has enhanced his reputation since going to Barcelona.

Not that this will give Bayern’s opponents much cause for hope. While Guardiola has yet to prove himself in a foreign environment, few expect the Bavarian club’s progress to be derailed by the appointment of one of the world’s most brilliant coaches.

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