Robben: Arsenal will win nothing this year
ARJEN Robben was thought by some at Chelsea to lack gladiatorial substance. Bayern Munich's flying Dutchman has since shown that theory to be nonsense.
At Stamford Bridge, Real Madrid and in Bavaria, one of the chief threats to Arsenal in north London on Tuesday night has developed a sharp sense of the importance of fighting spirit.
Robben has played under Jose Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and Jupp Heynckes – and will soon take orders from Pep Guardiola – so his view of Arsene Wenger's troubles is especially valuable ahead of the Champions League round of 16 first leg. In an interview at the Bayern training ground he said of Arsenal's recent problems: "I can understand it, the disappointment. Eight years without a trophy is a very, very long time."
He was not putting the boot into Wenger's men. But when he recounts his memories of playing for and against big Premier League characters he compares Arsenal's current state unfavourably with the Gunners he encountered in his early days at Chelsea.
"If you look to the team who won the trophies – with (Thierry) Henry and (Dennis) Bergkamp – they had a great side, with (Patrick) Vieira, and they also played nice football. They're still a team you can enjoy because, every time, they try to play some nice football, but I can also understand the fans because they want some trophies."
Robben (29) watched his Holland team-mate, Robin van Persie, flee to Manchester United and ascribed the move to a desire to win prizes that would have stayed out of reach at Arsenal. He said: "I think in the end for the real Arsenal supporters it was a shame, it was very disappointing that he left the club. But on the other hand everybody understands his choice, that he also wants to win titles, and at Arsenal at the moment it's going to be very difficult."
Bayern intend to make it so in the Champions League, in which they lost the final on home soil in May to Robben's old club, Chelsea. He has been twice a beaten Champions League finalist (2010 and 2012) and also has a World Cup final loser's medal with Holland from three years ago. Robben missed a penalty in extra-time against Chelsea (a "terrible kick", he called it) and declined to take another in the shoot-out.
So the charming, phlegmatic midfielder-cum-striker who gives up the best part of an hour for this interview is no novice in disappointment. He says of that night last May: "It was a very difficult situation for everyone at the club. It was the last game of the season so everybody went on holiday but most of us also had the European Championship. We had to change quickly and try to prepare for a new challenge.
"After that we had holidays and needed some time to recover from the defeat. But what I saw very soon in the Bayern squad was the strength of feeling that we had to win something this season and had to improve again. Everyone was very motivated to start the new season and forget about the final.
"In the end it was very dramatic and in Germany everyone was talking about how we were second in everything – second in the Bundesliga, lost in the German Cup and the Champions League final – so it was a pretty sad story. If you lose in the last minute you lose everything, which is very painful. We needed some time to recover from it, but if you look at it objectively you have to recognise that we did a lot of things very well."
To recover from those emotional lacerations Bayern needed strong men of the sort Robben says he learnt from at Chelsea. He also thinks it foolish that Frank Lampard will be released on grounds of age. "In a team you need a good mix of personalities, good characters," he starts out. "When I was at Chelsea we had some great characters in the team, that's something you learn from. At the time I was still very young and for my development it was a good experience to work there with such big characters.
"I came to Chelsea with (Didier) Drogba, Petr Cech, with Frank and John (Terry) already there. All those players have been playing together for a long time and had a lot of success. The Champions League was the most important prize for Mr Abramovich, the trophy he really wanted to win.
"There comes a time when you have to renew the team and look for fresh players. But for me the most important thing is quality. If Lampard still brings quality to the team it doesn't matter that he's 34. Even if he's 38 it doesn't matter. It shouldn't have anything to do with age, it's about quality.
"He's such a big player for the club. What he has done for them is amazing. He's a professional, he's a great player. I really enjoyed playing with him and I was always impressed with the way he played."
This emphatic endorsement leads us from voluntary changes at Chelsea to involuntary ones at Arsenal. Robben says of Van Persie's summer move from to Old Trafford: "It was a big step and it was a big club, Man United, and it's normal to need some time to adapt. But he made such a big impact on the team it's unbelievable, very impressive. I can't say I'm surprised because I know him, I know his qualities, I know what he's capable of. You have to show it, not once or twice but every time. The most important thing is he is focused and he knows what he wants. In his mind he's very strong."
Robben treads diplomatically on the subject of Arsenal's mental strength but his thoughts are clear: "It's very difficult for me to really judge this situation. But I mean if you see there are always players leaving – and, when they leave, at that moment they are the most important players or the best players – and if you keep losing these players, then every time you have to try to build up again. Mr Wenger has shown he can do it. He's a great manager. He's shown it by improving young players. But the trophies are also important."
There are no such convulsions at Bayern, with their 159,000 members, organisational stability and recent coup in capturing Guardiola for next term. No wonder the winners of 22 Bundesliga titles and four European Cups are so buoyant.
Robben says: "Yes, we cannot run away from it, we have to embrace it and say it out loud. We want to be champions again this year.
"I had a great three years at Chelsea – I really enjoyed my time there – and Real Madrid was a great experience. I'm really honoured that I've been at such great clubs. My family is very happy here and it's such a big club as well, by far the biggest in Germany. I'm still 29 and have a few years ahead of me.
"It's a great league to play in. Wherever you play the stadiums are full. But also the quality of the teams.
"The great example now is that if you look at the teams now playing in Europe they're doing impressively well. I think the real experts know the situation in Germany, and they know the quality has improved over the last two or three years."
Guardiola must have thought so. Which is why he will be Robben's boss six months after Bayern have inflicted their wonderful culture on Arsenal.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)