Just under a year ago, Arjen Robben was a broken man. Although he'd managed to come back from a crippling injury for the umpteenth time, his spirit took a greater blow than any his body had ever received.
In April of 2012, the Dutch winger missed a penalty against Dortmund that effectively finished any chance Bayern had of catching the eventual Bundesliga winners. For good measure, he missed a sitter at the death that could have salvaged a point.
A month later, Robben again failed to convert from the penalty spot, this time in extra time of the Champions League final. His miss would prove costly, as Chelsea edged the Bavarians in a later shootout. Then, at Euro 2012, Robben's Netherlands finished last in their group, failing to take a single point from three matches.
When the Bundesliga resumed in August, Robben was no longer a starter at Bayern. Thomas Muller had reclaimed a starting role, playing on the right flank with Toni Kroos in the center and Franck Ribery on the left. Robben struggled with injuries through most of the fall, but Bayern hardly missed him: The winger played in only five Bundesliga matches before the winter break, by which time his team held a commanding nine-point lead in the domestic table.
Robben's health returned in January, but he still wasn't first-choice in the biggest games—most notably in the Champions League. The 29-year-old started against Arsenal in the second leg of their Round of 16 tie, but was terribly selfish and woefully poor, as the Gunners pushed Bayern to the brink with a 2-0 win in Munich.
The Arsenal game might have spelled the end of Robben's career in Munich. However, fate intervened in the winger's favor in April, as Toni Kroos was forced to leave the pitch due to a groin injury early in the first leg of Bayern's Champions League quarterfinal tie with Juventus.
Robben came on, and while he did not directly contribute to either of Bayern's goals, his wing play was hugely influential on the game's tactics, as the Bavarians rather comfortably beat Juventus 2-0.
Robben has been a first-team regular ever since, and Kroos' absence has not been felt. Bayern have won all seven of their fixtures since the 23-year-old's injury, with Robben scoring and assisting three goals apiece. His most recent goal, scored on Wednesday night, came against Barcelona.
By the numbers, Robben is nearly on par with his best spells at Bayern. But there's a difference in his play now.
He's not as fast or explosive as he once was, and injuries have certainly taken their toll. His patented cut-to-the-left-and-shoot move is not as heart-stoppingly devastating as it was in 2010. Overall, Robben is less individually decisive than he was three years ago.
The difference now is that Robben has learned to fit into the Bayern team. It's something of a recent event, given that he still was incredibly selfish with and without the ball in the Arsenal tie. But by the time he faced Juve, and especially against Barca, the Bedum native seemed to accept that he can learn from Jupp Heynckes, and that the only way for his team to succeed would be for him to change his ways.
To this end, perhaps the close call against Arsenal was a blessing in disguise.
Watching Robben against Barcelona was like seeing a new player, albeit with some tricks retained. He didn't wait for the ball to come to him, but instead followed the play into his own half. He pressed and fought for the ball unlike ever before. And instead of demanding the ball in every situation, he trusted his teammates to do the work.
In the first leg, Robben even fooled Jordi Alba as he went to his right rather than using his trademark cut to the left—he scored with a cool finish. And when the time came to deliver his classic left-footed strike in the second leg, the Dutchman delivered a crippling blow to Barca as he opened the scoring.
The decline of Robben's individual abilities has turned him into a better player. Until recently, he tried to do more than he could—and even in his prime, his individualism and unwillingness to help in defense suppressed the performance of his teammates and the club overall.
But as of late, Robben's performances have fit into Bayern's game plan and lifted the club to greater success. Robben has certainly lost some of his flashiness over the years, but now he may be as valuable to Bayern as he ever was.
In the age of Messi and Ronaldo, his story—and that of Bayern's 7-0 drubbing of Messi's Barca—is a reminder that it's never too late to change, and that collectivism trumps individualism.
Hats off to Robben for changing his ways. He and Bayern are certainly better for it.
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