To be fair to United's defence, Robben took them by surprise there with that new move where he cut in with his left and shot.
— Baha (@LifeOfBaha) April 9, 2014
This was the joke making the rounds on Twitter last night after Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben sealed his team’s Champions League progress against Man United with a third goal in their 3-1 second leg win. This, of course, is the move that defines Robben as a player (outside the diving).
At the same time, a quiet voice in the back objected, that of the excellent Michiel Jongsma, who pointed out a 2010 study which claimed Robben’s movement is “…slightly faster than conscious knowledge” (translated from this Dutch news item).
So which is it?
Well, a single instance will never tell the tale, but we can least see how the Robben cut-inside-and-shoot routine is so effective. So without further ado:
In this first image, we have pretty much the essence of Robben. Preamble: Robben had an enormous patch of space on the right flank, in which he ran in a straight line directly at a waiting Patrice Evra. Meanwhile Mario Mandzukic has made his own run, tracked by Nemanja Vidic. Brilliantly, Mandzukic has taken Vidic out of the play. And so Robben cuts inside right as he comes within a yard of Evra. A still image will not do it justice, but the speed of Robben’s pivot is incredible.
In this next image, Evra has attempted to check Robben’s run, and nick the ball off his feet, but he’s a split second too slow. Equally impressive is Robben’s ability to overstep the challenge and continue along the gap left between Vidic and Smalling.
Here, Vidic has turned from Mandzukic to see Robben heading right at him. His body shape isn’t ideal as he’s already tracked Mandzukic into the 18 yard box, and he’s facing the wrong way. And so…
Robben cuts to his left foot again! But all is not as simple as it seems, because Thomas Mueller has made a run across Smalling’s body, effectively clearing space for his team-mate along the edge of the 18.
And here, some luck and magic. It’s clear from the still the miniscule margin of error Robben has for his shot. He’ll have to use the space still between Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. I’m not sure he even knows it’s there, but I like to think he’s able to see through space and time.
Robben seems to run interminably. His possession of the ball is never in doubt, but we can now perhaps fault both Smalling and Jones for not closing down sooner.
And the denouement. Robben has gone past Vidic, has only single passing option out wide, can sense space further in the box which has been afforded by Smalling and Jones, and goes for it.
So, should United have anticipated Robben’s shtick? The Dutch winger indeed just ran forward, then ran to the left, then shot, something he’s done before. Yet we have to also take into consideration two other elements.
First, Robben’s individual technical brilliance—feinting Evra, skipping his tackle, running past Vidic and waiting for the precise moment to take his shot, beating David de Gea by a whisker.
Second, the movement of his teammates. Mandzukic for taking Vidic out of the initial part of the play allowing Robben a clear line along the 18, and Mueller for cutting across Smalling and preventing him from closing down on Robben earlier.
As for Smalling and Jones…they may not have closed down to avoid a Bayern attacking from running behind them to pick up a Robben pass. Robben tees up so quickly (and unpredictably) that it’s impossible to know when he’s setting up to shoot in time.
So as for whether Robben is faster than human consciousness or whether United should have tracked his predictable attacking preference better, the answer is yes.