Bayern Munich’s 3-0 win over Hertha Berlin on Wednesday served as a powerful reminder that the old guard are not yet ready to call it a day.
After Franck Ribery scored the Bavarians’ opener, substitute Arjen Robben grabbed the third seven minutes after coming on and men both were the talk of the town following a performance deemed “the best of the season” by Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti.
Robben’s 78th goal for the Reds, which came via his signature move — a curling shot into the top corner signature shot after cutting in from the right — put him level with fellow Dutchman Roy Makaay as the Bayern’s third-leading foreign scorer in the Bundesliga, behind Giovane Elber and Claudio Pizarro.
It was Robben’s first competitive appearance in six months after multiple adductor injuries and the Allianz Arena greeted his return with a standing ovation.
“It was a very nice moment for me,” the 32-year-old said. “I have to thank [the supporters] for it. It made me think about all the things I did to come back. Today was a reward for all the hard work.”
Time will tell whether Robben can continue to be a factor for Bayern this season — “It would be nice if Arjen didn’t get injured, was always there and played throughout a number of years,” said captain Philipp Lahm — but there can be no doubt about the importance that he and Ribery, the winger duo dubbed “Robbery” by the local press, hold in the Ancelotti set-up.
The Italian coach trusts creative players to come up with solutions in the final third and the individualistic streak that runs through the game of Robben and Ribery game is not just indulged but encouraged.
The Frenchman, who had felt hemmed in by Pep Guardiola’s exacting instructions (and a little unloved, due to the Catalan’s business-like relationship with players), clearly enjoys his renewed licence to roam freely. Robben, meanwhile, can concentrate on taking up that favourite position of his, wide on the right, coiled for the classic cut back in onto his left foot.
In addition, the two mavericks benefit from a slightly more reactive set-up under Ancelotti. Bayern press less and start attacks from deeper positions, which leaves them more space to run into.
“It’s important to have [Robben and Ribery] available now that the big games are coming,” Ancelotti said on Wednesday night. The 57-year-old knows all about extending the lifespan of experienced pros from his time at Milan, having coached the likes of Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf and others into their mid-30s with great success.
One of the secrets to that was Ancelotti not rushing his players and keeping pressure and work levels in check. Robben hinted at “clever people” in the coaching set-up making sure he didn’t come back to early. Guardiola’s infamous impatience with injured players has given way to a much more cautious approach under Ancelotti when it comes to rehabilitation.
A couple of months ago, those tasked with recalibrating the Bayern squad for the post-Robben, post-Lahm and post-Ribery years, were working under the assumption that only one of the two wide forwards would be kept on beyond next summer; Robben and Ribery, who are in their eighth season of playing together, are out of contract in June.
Attempts to have four suitable replacements for next season are under way: Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman were bought last summer, while Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt and Serge Gnabry of Werder Bremen are under intense observation, along with half a dozen other contenders based outside Germany.
Ribery’s strong performances have altered the club’s thinking, however. If he and Robben stay healthy, they could both get one-year extensions, in recognition of past deeds and future prospects. Renewals with two fan favourites and veterans would also perfectly fit the “family ethos” espoused by Uli Hoeness, who is set to return as Bayern president in November.
Xabi Alonso can also harbour hopes of third year at Bayern; everyone at Sabener Strasse raves about the Spaniard’s professional attitude and intelligence. Contract talks with the trio should start just before Christmas, when their contributions under Ancelotti — as well as the progress of youngsters like Coman, Joshua Kimmich and Renato Sanches — can be more fully evaluated.
In the meantime, the German champions believe that the uncertainty will act as a powerful incentive for “Robbery” in particular to perform well and earn new deals. There’s a limited market for both and multiple-year offers by other clubs of a similar standing at their current wage levels — each earns well in excess of €10 million annually — are unlikely.
The wingers wouldn’t be the first professionals to find consistency ahead of signing a contract extension. Bayern still have a need for them, both on the pitch as game changers and as big-name players providing competition for places.
Ancelotti’s laissez faire regime needs to be offset by internal pressure and ambition, for fear of things becoming just a little too comfortable. Thus, the sight of Robben and Ribery tearing up the wings, as if it was 2013, is most welcome in that respect.