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Robben, Ribery and The Next Phase of Bayern Munich

Bayern’s recent return to being a feared European powerhouse is largely down to the exploits of ‘Robbery’. Neil McCann writes on their impact and the next step for Bayern Munich.

Each of the biggest clubs in Europe has their superstar. Sides like Real Madrid and Barcelona possess several elite talents, but they tend to rely on one player above all others. For Madrid Cristiano Ronaldo has netted exactly half of their goals in La Liga, while scoring a staggering 46% of their total goals this season. While Barcelona’s superstar Lionel Messi has only contributed 5 of his teams 17 La Liga goals, (and only 1 in 3 in the Champions League) he leads the team in assists and is the only player to contribute more than one assist in any competition.  Barcelona relies at least as heavily on their star for his creating prowess as Madrid does for his pure goal scoring ability. Other teams such as Chelsea blend a mixture of 2nd tier superstars, players with extraordinary ability but who are not quite on that top level, to create their attack.  This brings us to Bayern Munich, a club who for the last few seasons has counted on the blistering pace and dribbling abilities of world-beaters such as Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben to lead the attack.  With the former being increasingly hampered by injuries and beginning to lose a step, the question has become: What is next for the Bavarian Giants?

Robben Ribery

The 2013 Champions League Final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund made Munich’s reliance on Ribery and Robben, or “Robbery” as they are affectionately known in Bavaria, plain to see. Both were involved in the games opening goal with Ribery slipping Robben down the left wing, before the Dutchman squared the ball across goal for teammate Mario Mandzukic to tap in.  While Ribery did not receive and assist for the play, his pass was the one that split Dortmund open and allowed Robben to work his magic.  For the game’s winner it was Ribery’s exceedingly clever lay off that caught the elite defensive pairing of Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic flat footed, and allowed for Robben to streak through and scuff one past Dortmund keeper Roman Weindenfeller.  Robben ended that match with a goal and assist and Ribery earned an assist and a key pass, which led to the first goal.  These two, working together, cut Dortmund apart on two crucial occasions.  Over the past year or so however, their influence, Ribery’s in particular, has begun to slow.

This is not to say that Ribery has completely fallen off, because he hasn’t, as his 13 goals and 12 assists in all competitions would suggest. What is beginning to become a concern is the fact that he suffered a major injury this year, and at 31 years old, there is no telling how effective he will be again.  Robben who had a stellar campaign last year, chipping in 15 goals and 10 assists, has begun this year in the same vein.  He has only been rewarded with a solitary goal and 2 assists in 3 games, but he has recorded an absurd 11 key passes in that time.  Robben’s average of 3.7 key passes per game marks him 5th in the world behind Messi, Fredi Guarin, Max Kruse, and Kevin de Bruyne, however all of these players have featured in more games than Robben.

There is no easy way for Bayern Munich to replace players that mean and contribute so much to them. One of the few blessings of Ribery’s injury is the fact that Pep Guardiola can now experiment more with the attacking trio of Thomas Muller, Mario Gotze, and the aforementioned Arjen Robben playing behind striker Robert Lewandowski. Against newly promoted, yet then table toppers Paderborn, the quartet were brilliant. All four contributed a key pass, Robben leading the way with a staggering 5.  Gotze recorded a brace while also contributing an 88% pass completion rate.  Muller and Lewandowski combined for 2 goals and an assist, and 4 key passes, to cap off what was the best attacking display of the season by Bayern Munich.

The key part of this attacking play was the interchange between Gotze on the left and Muller from the center. For Gotze’s first goal Muller’s lay off found him in a pocket of space in the middle of the box, where he had drifted too as the attack had developed on the right hand side.  This intelligence and awareness is vital to both player’s games, as neither possess the elite pace that Robben and Ribery have. Gotze is technically brilliant, but his vision and creativity are his greatest attributes, while Muller relies heavily on his industrial work rate and professionalism.  Lewandowski’s eye for goal and finishing ability, something that has been up and down since the season has started, will provide Bayern Munich with a striker that can do it all. He will be the most likely beneficiary of Muller and Gotze’s chemistry.

Another player that could feature heavily in the post “Robbery” years is Xherdan Shaqiri.  The Swiss international has struggled to make a lasting impact since joining Bayern but he has some impressive tools in his belt.  His pace and dribbling ability is akin to Robben and he single handedly ripped Wolfsburg to shreds in the German Cup semi finals two years ago with 3 assists and a goal.  He has the rare ability to make defenders back off when he drives at them, and his directness is a breath of fresh air in a Bayern team that can be accused of being too cute.  Last year in 17 league appearances, 10 of them starts, he scored 6 times and had 2 assists.  He was able to successfully complete, on average, 1.7 dribbles a game, and 1.4 key passes.  These are good, but not spectacular, statistics for a player that featured mostly as an impact sub.

The question has become in recent months whether Shaqiri wants to remain with Bayern.  If he does, then he could be a like for like replacement for Robben, if he doesn’t then Bayern will have to find others that can replicate his strengths. One such player is teenage wonderkid Sinan Kurt, signed from Borussia Monchengladbach this summer. Kurt has only featured in the youth leagues, but he has enormous potential thanks to his gifted feet and pace and could feature as an option in a few years time.  Kurt and Julian Green, currently on loan at Hamburg, lit up the lower leagues last season and could feature as a pairing for Bayern for many years to come, if they continue to develop.

Bayern’s reliance on Ribery and Robben is not uncommon or unnatural and they do have options to replace them in future years.  What they will be required to do is change their playing style to one that relies less on dynamic dribbling on the wings, something they have done over the past few seasons, to one that better suits their new star’s skill sets.

Written by Neil McCann

Neil McCann


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