On Friday, a Netherlands side inspired by the brilliance of forwards Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie stunned Spain in their World Cup group-stage opener, hammering the defending world and two-time reigning European champions 5-1.
The match was a shock to the world football community not only for its result, but also for its tactical implications. Louis van Gaal lined up his Dutch side in 5-3-2 formation with Robben lining up alongside Van Persie as a central striker. It was a rather unfamiliar role for the 30-year-old, who's spent his entire career on the wing. But it worked brilliantly: The two forwards complemented one another perfectly, each netting a brace.
Robben's brilliant performance against Spain now prompts the question: Should Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola take a page from Van Gaal's book and use Robben up front? Based on preliminary evidence, using the ex-Real Madrid man in a central role could be an option under the right circumstances.
Traditional wisdom would suggest Robben cannot be a good option through the middle. He is by no means a typical center-forward and his skill set is even rather different from that of a "false nine". Players as one-footed as he are rarely used in the center and Robben is undersized at 180 cm and 80 kg (per the official Bayern website).
Natural strikers tend to be more broad-shouldered to combat center-backs. False nines tend to be shorter, with a low center of gravity to make them more agile as a means to compensate for their small stature. And both true and false nines typically are able to shoot with both feet at least at a proficient level. Those who can't are too easily stopped by defenders, who don't need to wait for an attacker to make his move before countering him.
Robben is a curious case, however. His center of gravity isn't exactly low but he nonetheless is extremely agile and is known for his slaloming dribbles. And although his right foot is useful for little more than running, he nonetheless has made a career out of a single, repeated and very predictable move: Cutting in from the right wing and shooting with his left foot, usually towards the top-left corner. His explosive pace and agility make him difficult to contain even on one foot.
Partnership is key to the effectiveness of a player like Robben up front, and at Bayern he would have a great teammate in the form of Robert Lewandowski. The Polish striker may not have all the technical skill of Van Persie, but his unselfish nature may make him an even better partner than the Manchester United man.
Lewandowski is also more physically imposing than Van Persie and his relentless work rate and scrappy nature could open more space for Robben. On the counterattack, the pair could be absolutely devastating: Consider Lewandowski's role in this goal as well as this, with Robben the man making the forward runs instead of Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
On the downside, Bayern are rarely able to counterattack in Pep Guardiola's system. Opponents readily invite Bayern to attack, hoping for chances to counter themselves as the vast majority of the game is played with the German champions in their attacking half.
An in-form Robben has rarely been held completely in check, but one example is the 2010 Champions League final, in which a legendary Inter defense shut out the Dutchman in what was the best phase of his career. Packing the penalty box with good defenders could be the undoing of a Lewandowski-Robben partnership. On the other hand, that type of defensive tactic is typically the best way to subdue a Guardiola-led team regardless of how it lines up.
Against a team that plays a high defensive line and looks to actively attack, however, Robben as a centre-forward alongside Lewandowski is an option that Guardiola would be wise to consider. The Polish forward has experience playing with a smaller but more explosive and technical forward in Reus and as Robben showed against Spain both last week and in the 2010 World Cup, a high-playing defensive line (especially a slow one) is powerless to stop him in transition. The tactic would be a "Plan B," but as Guardiola should know quite well by now, a secondary approach is absolutely necessary.
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