Arjen Robben and The Big Match Fallacy

Arjen Robben has been one of the best and most consistent footballers in the world over the last 10 years or so but few see him that way. Why is this? Could it be that people are falling for the “Big Match Fallacy”?

The assessment of the quality of Robben prior to Saturday’s Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund was built on two matches; the 2010 World Cup final and the Champions League final of 2012. Due to missing a one-on-one with the goalkeeper in 2010 and a penalty in 2012, Robben had therefore been stereotyped as a player who can’t perform in the big matches. This article will attempt to put another side to the story.

2012 Champions League final – the penalty
The extra time penalty against Chelsea last year is one of 13 penalties taken by Arjen Robben in his career in league, Champions League and international matches. He has missed three, giving him a marginally above average success rate of 77%. The three missed penalties were all on target and therefore forced a save out of the opposing goalkeeper so his accuracy cannot be questioned. The idea that he missed because it was a big match conveniently ignores the fact that Robben scored from the spot a round earlier, during the second leg of the semi-final match at Real Madrid. That goal was critical as it brought the score back to 2-1 which is how it remained before Bayern won on penalties.

Not only that but Robben took another big match penalty eight years earlier. The Netherlands were in a shootout against Sweden at Euro 2004 and who should step up to take the decisive spot kick but Arjen Robben. He scored and the Dutch went through to the semi-finals.

2010 World Cup final – the chance
This match was built up beforehand as a battle between Spain, the natural inheritors of the ‘totaal voetbal’ tag of the 1974 Dutch team, and the almost devilish 2010 Netherlands squad who would do anything to win. It seems to now be generally seen as football’s equivalent of the triumph of good over evil. There is plenty I could say about that too but let’s focus on the one incident which is relevant here. Just after an hour of the match, Arjen Robben was through on the goalkeeper:

The perspective that many football supporters have of this type of situation is that it is pretty much a guarantee to score. However, the average probability of scoring is more like 40%. Looking at this particular example in which one of the greatest goalkeepers in the world is involved, it is not clear what Robben actually does wrong. He sends Casillas the wrong way and the Spaniard only manages to save the ball with his toes. Spain got lucky.

So, a 13 season career comprising hundreds of matches and over 100 goals was condensed down to incidents in the two biggest matches of Robben’s career. With one it isn’t even clear that Robben does anything wrong except to play for the ‘wrong team’. As for the other, most players will miss around one in four penalties as Robben has. These incidents have been used to sum Robben up as a player who can’t perform in big matches. This is a wildly unfair assessment of a wonderful player.

I am not going to comment on the 2013 Champions League final because to do so would be just as churlish as those who seek to define a man’s career negatively by selecting a tiny proportion of it. Looking only at the big matches in a professional player’s time in the sport is a fallacy as the matches are an incredibly small sample of those played in total. It can only be justified by the claim that there are big match players and their opposite. These almost certainly do not exist and claims that they do are disproved almost every season with supposedly big match players not delivering and vice versa.

Arjen Robben should be regarded as one of the greatest players of this century. The reason he is not is, in part, to do with the Big Match Fallacy.

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4 Responses to Arjen Robben and The Big Match Fallacy

  1. charles says:

    To debunk the big match fallacy should you not be looking at his statistics for big matches and compar them to his statistics for other matches? It seems that you are relying on his career statistics including small matches to debunk the big match fallacy while the big match fallacy only is about his performance in big matches. For example, I understood that Robben took 25 before shots on goal in 3 CL finals without scoring, until the last minute of the 2013 CL. Is that a normal rate or it is specific to big matches? You claim that to determine how great a player is you should look at all matches. I don’t agree. Not all matches are equal. Look at Mertens. He scores a lot, but only when his team is already ahead by a number of goals against small teams, 3-0, 4-0, and 5-0. He is never decisive. (I don’t know if this is consistent with his data, but to illustrate my point.)

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