Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry: the greatest wing partnership in modern history

Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry: the greatest wing partnership in modern history

This feature is part of Duology

Should any team be so blessed as to hold within their ranks a truly outstanding pair of players; a twosome for whom simply sharing a field with the other enhances of their own game beyond common comparison, often these players are found side-by-side in a most literal sense.

Whether coupled at the solid centre of a stoic defense, found inside the spooling nucleus of a majestic midfield, or forming the sharpened point of a fearmongering forward line, the most noteworthy footballing duos are commonly recalled as being never more than an arm’s length away from one another, such is the formidable foresight and otherworldly abilities made wieldable when allowed to express themselves within close proximity to their partner.

On the contrary, for Bayern Munich wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, their own prominent partnership never seemed to require them being close to one another. In fact, to place one directly beside or behind the other would have been to shackle them, to rob them of the space and freedom they so adored exploiting. For the two Bavaria-based wide-men, opposite sides of the same field was plenty close enough; enough for them to terrorise defences, at home and abroad, for the best part of a decade, aiding Bayern in becoming one of European football’s most principle heavyweights and inspiring one of the most domineering domestic giants German football has ever seen.

Marginally the elder of the two, the almost stereotypically French sounding Franck Henry Pierre Ribéry found his way to the left-wing of Die Roten courtesy of two substantial, though disparately proportioned, spells in his native country, which bookended a brief sojourn in Turkey.

Having been handed a much deserved professional debut by his hometown club Boulogne at just 17-years-old, Ribéry would move on swiftly, rattling through checkpoints at Olympique Alès, Stade Brestois and Metz, before making his way to Galatasaray. Though his big move abroad would end abruptly, seeing him return to France after just six months and scarcely more than a handful of appearances, it would prove pivotal.

Ribéry’s form during his brief stay in Istanbul caught the eye of Marseille, who eagerly added him to their attacking ranks, and it was only a short while later, while busy setting Ligue 1 ablaze in the white and blue of Les Olympiens, Ribéry would receive further reward. In the summer of 2007, the winger was handed his ticket to the very top; a then club-record €25m transfer to Bayern Munich.

Read  |  Franck Ribéry: the Galatasaray diaries

The comparatively succinctly named Arjen Robben, meanwhile, found his own way to Bavaria two seasons after Ribéry’s arrival. Before joining his future friend in Germany, Robben first rose to the top of the Dutch game, with PSV Eindhoven, to whom he had earned a move after impressing out wide at boyhood club Groningen. Naturally, then, came the pursuit of further success further afield.

Transfers to Chelsea and Real Madrid afforded the daring Dutchman ample opportunity to see more of the continent of his birth, to juxtapose the diverse cultures belonging to the English and the Spanish, and, as would soon become the norm for the high-achieving attacker, to conquer their top divisions also. By the time Robben had reached the south of Germany, he’d already become a champion in three nations and long since made himself indispensable to the national team of the Netherlands.

Despite the finely tuned chemistry he quickly established with his fellow wide-man, Robben was certainly no prerequisite to Ribéry’s early success at Bayern. That is to say that, by the time the Dutch half of the duo touched down in Germany, his French counterpart had already secured a domestic treble – of Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and DFB-Ligapokal – in his debut season.

So sublime were Ribéry’s contributions to Munich’s cause during that inaugural campaign, the winger retained the French Footballer of the Year award he had only the season before first swiped from the grasps of Thierry Henry, who had been hoping to take the title home for the fifth year on the bounce.

Featuring in close to 50 games across the season, racking up 19 goals and 20 assists in all competitions, Ribéry’s influence was unquestionable. “He’s been the star of the first half of the season,” his club’s head coach Ottmar Hitzfeld enthused at the player’s award ceremony in Paris. Later that same evening, with the accolade clutched gratefully in his hands, Ribéry reminisced: “My arrival at Bayern surpassed all expectations.” He’d seen nothing yet.

Without the knowledge of what great triumphs awaited, Ribéry would have been forgiven for believing his dream start to life at Bayern was approaching a rude awakening. The following campaign, though his personal game would continue to develop keenly, Ribéry’s Bayern came unstuck. Bested in the Bundesliga by Wolfsburg, and deservedly dumped out of both the German Cup and Champions League at the quarter-final stage, a trophyless Bayern returned to the drawing board.

Read  |  Cut in, shoot, repeat: why Arjen Robben is a worthy modern great

Intent on moulding a masterpiece, together the Bayern movers and shakers painted the portrait of a new look right-flank; one that oscillated around the irresistible talents of a winger Real Madrid seemed crazy to be willing to part with; one that they hoped would level their own playing field for the better, in matching Ribéry stride for stride on the byline opposite his own.

When chairman and head coach combined, sanctioning the €25m signing of Arjen Robben, the partnership of Uli Hoeneß and Louis van Gaal could hardly have imagined the prolificacy of the partnership whose stars they were about to align.

Bayern began the 2009/10 campaign with their sights set on revenge but with their hands in their pockets. Still visibly sullen from having their Meisterschale stolen by the Wolves, successive season-starting draws with Hoffenheim and Werder Bremen left them licking their wounds. The 2-1 loss to newly promoted Mainz that followed rubbed salt into them. Then, on the eve of their fourth league fixture, Bayern announced the capture of their new principal Dutch attacker and with that, almost like magic, their fortunes underwent a quite dramatic upheaval.

The very next day Robben began what would be his Bayern Munich debut on the bench, sat next to Ribéry. Ahead of Wolfsburg by a single goal at the break, van Gaal summoned his new muse from the sidelines and cast him hopefully into the action, with the whole second half in which to make an impression. Ribéry soon joined him, substituted onto the field shortly after the hour mark.

Barely four-and-a-half minutes of football had expired, with Robben and Ribéry sharing the field for the first time, before they linked up to stunning effect; galloping into enemy territory as the front and back of a two-man breakaway that ended with Robben squeezing in a debut goal to double Bayern’s lead. A little over 10 minutes later and, again, it was the sight of Ribéry laying it on a plate for Robben that Wolfsburg last saw before they went under once more and had their defensive record sullied again.

“The Dutch international combined well with Franck Ribéry to seal Bayern’s first win of the season,” read The Guardian’s post-match report. “The win and the three points were well and truly secured on 80 minutes when Ribéry and Robben set off on a two-man counter-attack which concluded with Robben stroking home his second of the night to crown a fine debut,” recalled Goal’s. Two players, two counters, two goals. On that sultry late summer’s night in Munich, the legend of ‘Robbery’ was born.

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Bayern were forced to negotiate an awkward phase of indifferent form that ultimately lead to a persistence of rumours surrounding the impending sacking of head coach Van Gaal. In eighth place in the Bundesliga after 13 games, and stuttering in the Champions League group stage with recurring losses home and away to Bordeaux, the following weeks would prove vital for the Dutch manager. His prayers were answered by his compatriot.

Scoring more than any of his Bayern teammates throughout his maiden campaign in Bavaria, with 23 in all competitions, and directly involved in more goals than all but the vastly influential Thomas Müller, Robben took his new team’s fate into his own hands. In the latter stages of the Champions League déjà vu struck as Bayern opened successive rounds with 2-1 victories only to close them with 3-2 losses. Fortunately, in both cases, the away goals rule allowed their progression and twice it was Robben who scored the vital goals that carried his team onwards.

At the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence, just moments after the home side had snatched a 3-1 lead on the night, and a 4-3 lead on aggregate, Robben received the ball way out on the right-wing, cushioning a flat pass with the inside of his right foot. Time, it seemed, to treat his fans to one of his most beloved and oh so familiar hits. 

Immediately he swept the ball onto his left foot and darted inwards. Four quick touches brought him further infield, swaying towards then away from the approaching defenders, until he locked in on his desired angle. Letting fly from all of 25 yards, Robben rasped a snarling shot high into the top right-hand corner of the net, leaving Sébastien Frey clutching at thin air and his Fiorentina teammates eliminated.

In the subsequent quarter-final, Bayern travelled to Old Trafford with a 2-1 win already bagged, secured thanks to goals from Ribéry and Ivica Olić. Yet, with a little over 20 minutes of the two-legged tie remaining, Bayern were behind 4-3 on aggregate once more. In the 74th minute, Ribéry elected to deliver his team’s corner and, while standing at pitchside, gestured with his hand for one of his teammates to bend his run inside. As players from both teams followed his instructions, filling the area with jostling and jousting, Robben hovered with intent on its perimeter. Ribéry found him with a deft right-footed clip. Robben found the ball with a sumptuous left-footed volley. The ball found the net, Bayern found an away goal lead, and Manchester United found elimination. The pair had done it again.

After disposing of Lyon in the semi-finals, Bayern would ultimately be undone by Internazionale in the Champions League final. Robben’s emphatic introduction to Bayern would not be crowned with European glory. It would, however, receive just reward in the form of a domestic league and cup double, ensuring the Dutchman all but emulated his French companion’s own debut season adorned in the crimson of Bayern.

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Equipped with ample ability to succeed in the beautiful game with their speed of thought and of movement; their keen intuition and adept close control; a sharp sense of footballing intellect, to swiftly calculate the most efficient path to goal, and the skill and athleticism to enact it exactly as it played out in their minds; Robben and Ribéry almost always appeared destined for greatness.

But while these assets were undoubtedly sufficient to make either world-class in their own regard, the starring leads in title-winning squads cast in their own unique image, what made them such so special in collaboration can be traced back to just one single preference: the duo’s innate penchant for the inverse wing.

Routinely, right-footers gravitate towards the right-wing, just as left-footers do the left, enabling them the freedom of the flank, opportunities to drive down the line and deliver crosses on their stronger side. The byline, though, was not made for Robben nor Ribéry. While both possessed the pace and precision of dribbling to terrorise a full-back, and they often would, both demanded more involvement than that of a traditional winger and would place themselves on the opposite wing in order to allow them every given chance to cut inside and circumvent the fringes of the field altogether by driving deep into the heart of the pitch. Seizing greater roles in the game engendered greater responsibilities which inspired greater influence and in turn greater reputations.

Across the, so far, nine seasons spent occupying opposite Bayern flanks, Robben and Ribéry have collaborated on amassing a quite monstrous collection of silverware. Seven Bundesliga championships – the last six of which broke the country’s record for consecutive title wins – four DFB-Pokal triumphs, Super Cups of all shapes and sizes, and a belated but inarguably career-defining Champions League glory, attained by vanquishing rivals Dortmund at Wembley in the unforgettable all-German final of 2013; yet another game decided by the left boot of Arjen Robben, it must be noted. They have them all.

Both now forging their own furrows through their mid-30s, one can only assume their days at Bayern, and consequently the upper echelons of European football, are numbered. Tugging at the heartstrings of both may yet come the tempting calls of home, begging them to end their phenomenal careers in the familiar surroundings in which they began them, prizing them apart and bringing an end to their collaboration once and for all.

Whenever their respective moves from Munich may come, however, no manner nor timing of exit could ever tarnish the reputations that both boast at the Allianz Arena. Treasured tricksters and masterful wizards of their respective wings, their presence throughout the entirety of the most successful period in their club’s recent history will no doubt ensure the exploits of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry will long be remembered by those in and out the confines of Munich; cherished as quite possibly the finest partnership of wingers the modern game has seen.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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