Two-and-a-half years ago, Arjen Robben was one of the best footballers on the planet. His stunning performances led Bayern Munich to an improbable appearance in the 2010 Champions League final, and at the time he became known as a match-winner—one of the best in the world. But that is now a distant memory.
Since his marvelous 2009-10 club season, Robben’s reputation has taken a beating. His failure to score in the 2010 World Cup final when one-on-one with Iker Casillas was the beginning.
The Dutchman’s next season was abbreviated by injury, but in 2012 he again had his chances and again came up short. Robben missed a penalty and later a tap-in against Borussia Dortmund that effectively finished off all hopes Bayern had of catching the eventual champions.
In May, Robben again missed a penalty—this time a far more costly one—that could have decided the Champions League final. Once a big-game hero, Robben has since gained a reputation as a choker.
The “loser” label is not only Robben’s cross to bear, but that of the entire Bayern team. Two seasons without any titles, despite all the abundant financial and personnel resources they boast, is simply unacceptable for the Bavarians.
And it’s abundantly clear that previous close calls many of the Bayern players have had at club and international levels have taken a hefty toll. The fact that the likes of Toni Kroos and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk refused to take a penalty in the Champions League final and instead left it to goalkeeper Manuel Neuer speaks of a side haunted by its recent past.
There are a few players who as of yet have overcome the anxiety that has plagued the Bayern side. Neuer, who has always done his part in big games at Schalke and Bayern, and for Germany, is one. Another is Thomas Mueller.
The 23-year-old Mueller is a rare breed of player whose will to win trumps all external factors, from nerves to technical limitations. Even at the age of 20, he was cool and composed as he became the youngest top scorer at a World Cup since Pele.
In May, it was he—not Robben, Franck Ribery, or Mario Gomez—who scored what should have been the winner in the Champions League final. And it’s no coincidence that Germany and Bayern’s hopes unraveled only when Mueller was off the pitch.
Mueller is everything that Robben is not. He has a strong personality, but a better understanding of his limitations and is far more patient than the Dutchman. He’ll try to win matches in any way necessary, be it by scoring or taking care of less glamorous duties like defending or making a run to divert the attention of a defender and open space for a teammate. Unlike Robben, he will never simply put his head down and try to create something all on his own.
With Robben match-fit after a month on the sidelines, Mueller’s role as a starter on the right wing must once again be called into question. The Germany international has been in mercurial form, however, and what once might have been an easy decision for Jupp Heynckes is now far more complicated.
Both Robben and Mueller have their advantages in any individual game, and each will see his form fluctuate, but Heynckes must understand that his decision as to which will start in the big games will have a significant effect on Bayern’s long-term future. Only one is suitable, and that is Mueller.
There once was a time when Bayern needed a pair of “Galacticos” on the wings in Robben and Ribery. The main striker, Ivica Olic, was never a week in, week out scorer, while Mueller was not yet ready to perform at the highest level.
Bayern needed Ribery and especially Robben to carry them to the 2010 Champions League final. In a big game, if the Dutch winger had an off-day, the Bavarians lost. If he was at his best, they won.
But now, Bayern are much more than the duo known as “Robbery.” Gomez is exceptionally prolific, Kroos can add goals from midfield, and Xherdan Shaqiri, Mario Mandzukic and Claudio Pizarro are strong options from the bench. And then there’s Mueller, who in addition to his prolific record of creating goals, is a complete package: He defends well, has impeccable instincts, and has the spirit of a champion.
This is not meant to write off Robben as finished or an overrated player. His record in penalties was near-flawless before this spring, and he’s produced as many brilliant moments as he has blunders. But for the time being, he’s damaged goods.
Robben had a mountain of pressure on his shoulders when he took the penalty against Dortmund in April, and that was only compounded in the Champions League final. The last thing he needs now is the burden of expectation.
The good news is that Bayern no longer need Robben to play the hero. He had his time in the spotlight, but with Mueller having established himself as a big-game player alongside Kroos and Ribery, the ex-Chelsea man can focus on recovering his form and fitness, and being prepared to help decide matches as an impact sub.
Good for Bayern, good for Mueller, good for Robben. A rare, win-win scenario.