Manchester United: Is Arjen Robben The Right Signing?

Manchester United’s long-mooted move to sign Bayern Munich and Netherlands winger Arjen Robben could be back on following reports in England that the 32-year-old has grown unhappy at the Allianz Arena and is keen on a transfer.

The Mirror today reported that Robben’s relationship with Bayern Munich teammate Robert Lewandowski has broken down after the Polish striker made it clear that he prefers to spearhead the Munich attack when flanked by Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman. This owes mainly to the fact that he perceives Robben as being too selfish in possession.

Lewandowski’s age profile (27) and record of having scored 19 goals in 17 games for Pep Guardiola’s side this season means that, faced with a choice between selling Robben or Lewandowski, Bayern would be more open to allowing the Dutchman to move on, with Manchester United understood to be his leading suitor.

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The fact that the winger enjoys a good relationship with Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal after starting under his guidance for the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup means that the deal could go through when the European transfer window reopens in January. But at 32 with a patchy track record of injuries, the question of whether Manchester United would be better advised investing in a younger target is a legitimate one.

There can be little disputing the fact that United are in need of a player of Robben’s profile.

Fans have grown frustrated at the paucity of pace and incision observable in the Manchester club’s build-up play this season, where seemingly aimless horizontal passing and backwards movement has become a hallmark of a side once famed for its dynamic, attacking wingers.

In the aftermath of the Manchester United’s narrow 1-0 defeat of CSKA Moscow on November 4, for instance, the Guardian’sDaniel Taylor highlighted how Opta statistics show Manchester United as having the lowest percentage in the Premier League when it comes to moving the ball forward (30 percent) at the same time as having made the most backward passes (17 percent) and the joint highest number of sideways passes.

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In addition, United had at that stage taken only 77 shots, lower, as Taylor pointed out, “than every other top-flight side bar Sunderland and barely half as many as Manchester City’s 148.”

This is clearly an attacking malaise that Robben would be well placed to help to remedy. The Dutchman’s game has long been characterized by breakneck acceleration, immaculate close control, and dribbling ability, as well as an exceptional gift for beating opposition defenders from deep and delivering dangerous balls into the box.

With the exception of the French teenager Anthony Martial, no one at Manchester United has been bringing this brand of direct, attacking play to the starting line-up on a consistent basis.

Juan Mata is a wonderfully gifted playmaker but lacks the pace required to go past defenders on the right wing, £31 million summer recruit Memphis Depay has been dropped from the first XI, Adnan Januzaj has been loaned out to Borussia Dortmund, and the impressive but inexperienced Jesse Lingard has yet to prove that he is capable of being a consistent difference maker at the elite level of the English game.

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Indeed, van Gaal spoke openly in the aftermath of United’s 2-0 win against West Brom on November 7 about how he feels his attack lacks speed.

“I have said already in my first year many times we need speed and creativity on the wings. You have seen that now we play with Jesse Lingard and he is not the most speedy winger in the world, and Juan Mata is also not the most speedy winger in the world,” said the Dutchman. “So we must first [address] that problem and then we can see how we play and how we are in balance with playing with speedy wingers.”

At 32 speed is something Robben can certainly still bring to the United frontline. It was, after all, only just over a year ago that the Dutchman clocked a 37km per hour sprint against Spain in the World Cup, setting a new record for the fastest run ever recorded on a football pitch.

The manner in which the winger ghosted in at Petr Cech’s near post to put Bayern 4-0 up against Manchester United’s title rivals Arsenal in the Champions League at the start of this month, meanwhile, offered further demonstration of the fact that his physical faculties do not yet appear to be in terminal decline.

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Nevertheless, it is difficult to assess the “Robben to United” story without feeling such a move is informed by an air of short-termism and desperation – qualities that any informed football observer would be slow to associate with Mr. van Gaal.

Robben would arrive at Manchester United on exorbitant wages and with a maximum of three seasons of top-level football in his legs. Given van Gaal has already recruited the player most Dutch football commentators regard as Robben’s successor in Depay and has young talent such as Lingard and Martial developing, United’s money would seem better spent on recruiting younger talent out wide.

Atletico Madrid and France forward Antoine Griezmann (24) and Borussia Dortmund and Germany attacker Marco Reus (26) stand out as two obvious alternatives and the long-term benefit of both would be well worth the additional five months Manchester United might have to wait to sign them.

[Photo by Lennart Preiss/Getty Images]