Robben not holding any grudges over Wenger's 'good diver' broadside
Bayern star tells Jeremy Wilson he has no problem with Arsene Wenger and says Arsenal can be a force again
Published 19/10/2015 | 02:30
It is 19 months since the last of four recent Champions League matches between Arsenal and Bayern Munich, but there are certain remarks, even when uttered in the heat of the moment, that have the potential to scar.
Arjen Robben, claimed a defeated Arsene Wenger, was not just one of the greatest players of this generation, but also a "very good diver".
Robben returns to London with Bayern Munich today and while he has clearly not forgotten Wenger's observation, he also reveals that the air has already been cleared. Wenger seemed to get just about everywhere at the World Cup last year - from producing diving headers in his swimming trunks on Copacabana beach, to signing Alexis Sanchez -but also, it would seem, visiting the Dutch squad.
"I met him in Brazil," says Robben. "It was not a problem at all. No hard feelings. I'm quite easy that way."
That is emphatically not to say that Wenger was right.
"If they lose, some managers are disappointed and not always fair and realistic," he says with a shrug. "Maybe one week after, they say, 'OK, maybe it was wrong what I said'. But I haven't got a problem. I think he's unique. To be there for such a long time, you are doing a lot of things very, very well. See the players who became better.
"Look at the way Arsenal has developed. In Holland or Germany, they always talk positive about Arsenal. Why? The way they play, no negative football, always positive, technical football, wanting to make the game. I think that is big credit to him."
But are they a threat in the major competitions again? Are they getting nearer to the Arsenal team of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires that Robben first encountered when he joined Chelsea in 2004?
He nods and notes three differences since Bayern's 3-1 and 2-0 wins at the Emirates in 2013 and 2014. More match-winners, a stronger defence and also how the younger players are maturing.
"I think they have got enough quality," says Robben. "I thought last season they did very well. They won prizes; the FA Cup.
"They looked very stable and this year, they look very strong. I was really surprised to see them lose two Champions League games, but on their good day, I think they can beat any team and we have to be aware."
We meet at Bayern Munich's Sabener Strasse training complex shortly after Robben's first training session since sustaining a groin injury six weeks ago. He has been named in Bayern's squad for tomorrow's Champions League game at the Emirates Stadium, although the form in his absence of Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa may encourage some caution from manager Pep Guardiola. There was certainly no holding back in training when Guardiola paid particular attention to sharpening Robben.
Watching Guardiola and Robben working at such intensity from just a few feet is a beguiling experience. The favoured drill is the 'Rondo'. This is a training exercise that involves quick, accurate passing within a small circle of players. Guardiola helped make this drill famous at Barcelona and he repeatedly fires balls into the feet of Robben while delivering instruction and encouragement in various languages.
Robben's concentration is total and it is later instructive to hear Guardiola's response to suggestions he could soon be replaced by Coman or Costa. "Coman and Douglas Costa must eat a lot of soup if they are to reach the level of Arjen in this club," he says.
Since joining Bayern in 2009 after winning league titles in England and Spain, Robben has helped Bayern land the Bundesliga four times. They have already set a German record this season after starting their league campaign with nine straight wins.
Robben, of course, also scored Bayern's winning goal in the 2013 Champions League final and finished fourth behind Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Manuel Neuer in last year's Ballon d'Or.
"I always look forward to coming to England because of the atmosphere," he says. "I also feel very well. I am now coming back from injury, but before that, I played two years in a row without any injuries, reaching a very high level. I think the manager had an influence on that. Under him, I improved small things - you can't take big steps anymore - but I was enjoying my football."
The training session that has just taken place, says Robben, was very typically hands-on Guardiola. "If you want to play dominant football, you need to get the ball, think fast and play quick combinations in small spaces," he says. "This kind of training I love. It makes you better, makes you think fast and be concentrated. The manager loves the possession game.
"In the warm-up, we do the little circle. Every day. If you know you always have to make the game, dominate, surprise your opponent by playing the ball very fast, this is the kind of training you need."
What is most striking about Robben is not just the childlike pleasure that he still derives from having a ball at his feet, but even now, at the age of 31, an ongoing need to improve. "There was never a moment where I thought, 'I'm there, I've reached my goal'. You have to always continue. Sometimes, if you look to the younger generation, I miss that. Not just the hunger, but also a clear image of yourself and knowing where you can improve. Football is just a little thing. For me, mentality is still the main thing."
The only time Robben was ever late for training was when, while at high school in 2000, he met Bernadien Eillert in Groningen. "The focus was always football, working hard, doing school and then this one time, it was a Friday afternoon, before training, we went to the city, had a drink and I didn't want to leave," he says, smiling. "I met my wife." They now have three young children under the age of eight; Luka, Lynn and Kai. Life is also beginning to turn full circle and, while Robben loves watching his eldest son play, it is clearly not just England with over-zealous parents or coaches.
"There are some very good coaches and also some who should be ashamed. I cannot remember my dad, mum or anyone screaming at me or talking to me about what I had done wrong. It was always positive. If I hear swearing, talking negative to the kids or so many tactical things at a young age, I have to be, 'Leave them to play for fun'. Just be quiet. Some (coaches) listen, some don't want to listen."
Robben clearly listened to the many great coaches he played under. He credits Louis van Gaal with helping to build Bayern's current dynasty and says that the influence of Jose Mourinho was critical in strengthening his own mentality. He expects Chelsea to recover this season and, although he played for Mourinho for only two years, is unconvinced by the theory that his managerial methods become physically and mentally exhausting.
"Of course he is demanding," he says. "It is very intense to work with him, but you get used to his way. If you play at a world-class team like Chelsea, you have to perform every day. For Mourinho, maybe it is a nice challenge. He can take the positive and recover. I am certain he will."
Robben is similarly confident that English clubs will emerge from their European malaise, although he is persuaded by the benefits of a mid-season break.
"Four games in 10 days at Christmas is a little bit crazy. It is also the way you play in England. It is so fast, so intense, you need time to recover. You can discuss why English clubs have dipped in the Champions League for a long time, but sometimes it is a small detail. Chelsea won in 2012. These are the best teams in the world; one team has never won in consecutive years. It would not surprise me this year if an English team made the final."
It can, although the odds of Bayern and Robben playing in their fourth in seven years are considerably shorter.