Ferguson flat-footed after Robben's rapid change of direction

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The body-swerve is an integral part of any top-class winger's game. And the one Arjen Robben gave Manchester United by agreeing to join Chelsea left Sir Alex Ferguson as flat-footed as any full-back.

Robben, a 20-year-old left-sided midfielder with just four caps for the Netherlands, has spurned United in favour of a £12m to Stamford Bridge during the summer. His present employers, the Dutch champions, PSV Eindhoven, will become a feeder club for Chelsea.

The player for whom Claudio Ranieri and Ferguson competed so keenly had an unremarkable start to his career. His pace and close control were first deployed on behalf of his home-town team, VV Bedum, in the north of the Netherlands before he signed for nearby Groningen.

Robben received his debut at the age of 16 and made a clean sweep of the man-of-the-match prizes in a victory over Feyenoord. In the summer of 2001, PSV agreed a £3.9m fee for him while allowing him to remain at Groningen for a further season.

At Eindhoven his impact was instantaneous; he was voted the country's Young Player of the Year after showing an eye for goal as well as an ability to beat opponents. He has scored 21 times in 71 appearances for PSV, a healthy ratio for one whose main duty is to create chances.

Robben has carried the scoring habit on to the international stage. Eight months after his debut for the Oranje, which came last April when he replaced Marc Overmars against Portugal, he struck in a 5-0 defeat of Moldova in the Euro 2004 qualifying campaign.

Last month, with Ferguson present in the Amsterdam ArenA, Robben's goal brought a 1-0 success in the friendly against the United States. Controlling a long ball, he cut inside Frankie Hejduk and beat Cory Gibbs for good measure before firing past Kasey Keller.

Robben is assured of a place in Dick Advocaat's squad for the European Championship. Chelsea will be able to judge him in exalted company on 31 March, when the Netherlands meet France in Rotterdam.

One negative facet of his game is a tendency to try to get opponents booked or sent off. Guus Hiddink, PSV's coach, criticised Robben publicly, saying: "A young player is allowed to make mistakes, but Arjen has to leave all those gestures behind. He still has to learn to act like a man if faced by a fierce defender. But he's intelligent and he'll learn."

His switch to Chelsea certainly shows a capacity to countenance change. A month ago, when Robben visited United without PSV's permission, his father and agent, Hans, insisted it was Old Trafford or nothing. "My son will go to Chelsea over my dead body," he said. "United is the only place he wants to play. He'd rather play in PSV's reserves than for Chelsea."

Money talks, however. Roman Abramovich's millions apparently melted the Robbens' resolve, although PSV also allege that United reneged on a deal by making a final offer, of £5.5m, that was half what they originally promised to pay.

Harry van Raag, the PSV president who negotiated the transfers of Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy to United, had opened the way for Chelsea by laughing off United's bid. "For that, you get a shirt with Robben's name on it, nothing more," he said.

PSV yesterday claimed that their signing of Alex, a defender from the Brazilian club Santos, was part of an arrangement whereby they would act as a "nursery" club for Chelsea. Alex would join the London side in two years if they wanted him.

"There are advantages in this scheme for everybody concerned," Van Raag said. "We're all hopeful we can work together for the good of both clubs."