Brilliance is in solving problems in the smallest of spaces. Tied 1-1 in the 89th minute of the 2013 Champions League Final, Franck Ribery fended off Borussia Dortmund right back Lukasz Piszczek while controlling a free kick from Jerome Boateng with his left foot before backheeling the ball into space with his right foot in the same movement. Arjen Robben accelerated onto Ribery’s pass and dribbled around three Dortmund defenders before nudging the ball past Roman Weidenfeller to win the match. With Robben and Ribery at 29 and 30 years old at the time, the European title felt like a coronation of their career at the highest level. Instead, both players would play for Bayern for six more years. After combining for 22 seasons and 732 total matches with the club, the duo played their last league match for Bayern Munich on Sunday.
Their final league match, a 5-1 win over Eintracht Frankfurt to clinch their seventh straight Bundesliga title, was an appropriate final memory. Subbing into the match in the 61st minute, Ribery displayed his trademark dribbling in splitting two Eintracht defenders and finishing with a cheeky chip for their four goal. Robben then followed up with a poacher’s goal of his own six minutes later into an empty net. The emotion from Ribery and Robben following the match spread throughout various Bayern members for differing reasons. President Uli Hoeness said he couldn’t hold back his tears after reflecting upon what Ribery meant to the club over the last 12 years. Niko Kovac said he wasn’t ashamed of hiding his own feelings after an up-and-down season in which he fought so hard for the respect of Bayern skeptics after an early-season loss to Dortmund, then showed off his quality and fight in battling back to win the title. The simultaneous release of pent-up feeling was for the past and the present.
The raw numbers reflect Ribery and Robben’s importance and stature: they combined for 268 total goals. Ribery won a total of 22 titles during his 12-year run, with his nine league titles making him the most winningest player in Bundesliga history. With Ribery moving from Marseille in 2007 and Robben following two years later, they were the most impactful winger duo in European football for the past decade. But beyond the numbers was how they shaped the way Bayern Munich played from tradition. As Raphael Honigstein points out, Robben and Ribery changed Bayern’s play from dominating the middle of the field to lateral approach with their 1-on-1 ability on the wing. The type of players in Bayern’s starting 11 changed as well: with the attacking emphasis on the wing, the club recruited midfielders who could manage a match with their tactics and physicality while spraying passes wide to the creators.
The system was as close to perfected in the 2013 Champions League winning lineup under Jupp Heynckes. Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger midfield balance of steel and power gave a platform for Ribery and Robben’s pace and skill. Under Heynckes, Ribery won the UEFA Best Player in Europe that season over Ronaldo and Messi. He knew what made Ribery tick and how to handle him, Heynckes would say years later upon his managerial return to the club. And while no one would deny the historic excellence of Pep Guardiola’s era with the club over the next three seasons, 2013 was the last time that Bayern made the Champions League Final. They would get knocked out in the semifinal by Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid in the years after. Should a side with Robben and Ribery have had more success in Europe?
“I didn’t want to go, but the club wanted to sell me,” said Robben about Real Madrid in 2009. “I feel good about Bayern though,” he would later concede.
If it was up to Robben, his partnership with Ribery would have never happened. Lasting only two seasons at Real Madrid, Robben scored just 11 goals in 50 matches before his $28 million move to the Bundesliga. With Ribery making the move from Marseilles two seasons earlier for a then-club record fee of $28 million, Louis van Gaal insisted on buying Robben to add balance and versatility to Bayern’s side, saying that “with Robben and Ribery, we can play different systems” outside of just a 4-3-3 formation.
The duo entered their prime during an era when the role of the winger changed from providing width to becoming a side’s main playmaker, literally shifting which side a winger would play on. It led to the now common pattern of a winger cutting inside onto their stronger foot, with a side’s fullback taking their own role in providing traditional crosses. Robben’s signature sequence - cutting in on his left foot, dribbling around the top of an opponent’s penalty area, and unleashing a curling shot to the far corner - was born out of the modern approach to wingplay. There are YouTube compilations and soccer tutorials devoted to the move. Nothing speaks to his dominance more than defenders knowing exactly what Robben was going to do, yet still powerless to stop it.
Ribery may not have the signature move like Robben. Ribery’s style was based on raw intuition and unpredictability as compared to the rehearsed sequence of Robben. Ribery wore his streetball-influenced dribbling and close control on his sleeve. And if Robben’s signature characteristic was a move, Ribery’s defining feature had nothing to do with the game. His facial scar gave him a hero’s mark and a relatable imperfection amongst viewers. As Honigstein notes, his streetwise approach made Ribery the crowd favorite among Bayern supporters as they connected to his “rough-edged” warrior spirit as compared to the impenetrable polish of Robben. If Robben played to the mind, Ribery hit supporters at the heart.
While we’ve continually discussed how Bayern are on the cusp of a new generation, the loss of Robben and Ribery is a true symbolic shift. Although it’s probably been this way for a couple seasons now as their roles have diminished with age. Bayern will reportedly attempt to replicate the wing-centric style by attempting to sign Leroy Sane to pair Serge Gnabry. When asked what he learned from the two wingers, Gnabry pointed to their relentless mentality. He said that Robben and Ribery instilled in him the belief to take defenders on “again and again, saying that ‘eventually, you will break through’ [the defense].” Now all that’s left is to do that over and over again, at the highest level, for a decade.