It's hard to remember it now, but there was a time not so long ago in English football when men were men, women were women and central midfielders only came in one of two types: "defensive mid" (tackles) or "attacking mid" (scores), with nothing lurking in the confusing zones in-between. It was a time so basic and a dichotomy so widely adhered to that it was felt there was no need to even identify the type of central midfielder who reigned from box-to-box; if you were one of those, you were simply referred to as a "centre mid" and there was absolutely no androgyny in bridging that gap. If you were a centre mid, you were just somehow even more of a man, a thrusting piston, permanently erect, charging around the pitch honking the other players' breasts and fucking the game up the arse with a Hamlet cigar in your mouth and copies of Auto Trader and Viz under your arms.
Times have changed now, of course. There are things in British society that you just aren’t allowed to do anymore, and they include being a Premier League central midfielder whose sole ability is to tackle or score. We have the regista and segundo volante now, we have mezzale, we have woken up to the existence of the double pivot. We’re acquainted well with the playmaker, both advanced and deep-lying, and have even developed a nuanced and emotionally resonant empathy with the water carrier, something seen in the ongoing veneration of Chelsea's N'golo Kanté, a man treated like the stoic, self-sacrificing protagonist in Tracy Chapman’s "Fast Car" just for making a few interceptions and resisting the allure of large-scale tax fraud.
However, even as English football's Enlightenment moment continues to split the tactical atom, drilling down to identify player types with ever fussier specificity, so it gets harder to ignore the nagging feeling that through some strange process of strategic erosion, each player on the pitch is slowly morphing into one that is the same. Centre-backs, full-backs, most types of central midfielder, wingers, strikers, even goalkeepers: all are asked to possess the same basic skillset, to be mobile, athletic, strong on the ball; tactically intelligent and, if not risk averse, then definitely risk aware.
There’s an awful lot of ego at the highest level of modern football. There is less distinct on-field shape and identity, idiosyncrasy coming most often in the form of the throw-back – think Cardiff’s Callum Paterson, a goal-scoring defender converted by Neil Warnock into a kind of goal-scoring roaming-oaf, or Andy Carroll, an "old school target man" who, when he is physically capable of taking flight, seems to be plying a trade so ancient he resembles a horse being catapulted over a Medieval castle wall into packs of panicking serfs.
There is at least one idiosyncratic misshape still punching his weight at the very top level of the game, though; a player it felt almost heart-warming to see back to his best in the Champions League this week, inflicting his own, very particular brand of torture on the latest in a bloodied trail of flailing left backs. Yes: it's Arjen Robben, AKA Le Cut Inside Man, a man who’s been scoring the same FIFA '96 bug goal for almost 20 years, a breathing system glitch who's ridden his enduring signature move to success and wealth in a way that feels beyond both parody and parallel in modern football, a footballer who is so good at doing one particular thing with his body that he's been able to turn it into a multimillion-dollar mini-industry, the Cult of Cutting In.
You know what he’s going to do but it’s impossible to stop it. Arjen Robben has been scoring the same goal for so long now that he’s gone fully bald while doing so, because that repetitive process has allowed him to win more league titles than any Dutchman ever born. He is the Dr Manhattan of running really fast down the right touchline before cutting inside on his left foot, shifting it, shifting it, shifting it, and then launching the ball with barbarous force into the far corner of the net.
To watch Robben in the marauding mood he was in against Benfica on Tuesday, when he notched two more glorious, hilarious iterations of that famous Robben Goal, was to witness one of the sport’s more thrilling exercises in fate and futility. When the ball is at his feet in those zones, Robben basically becomes one of football’s human prophesies, someone who can show you the future before it’s happened, the ball emerging from his foot like one of the pearlescent liquid spears in Donnie Darko. Even if he doesn’t score – and he frequently doesn’t, no more infuriatingly than during Holland’s disastrous Euro 2012, which left him goalless and with nine of 12 shots off target – you know roughly where both he and the ball are going to end up.
With relentless repetition, Robben’s trick is passing beyond the realms of tedium and mild annoyance into something that is pleasing and even, in these late-autumn flushes of his career, weirdly poignant, like a senile granddad wheeling out the same joke over and over in family wedding speeches. The man from Bedum has never been the easiest player to warm to, a dour slaphead gobbling up silverware for the most boring powerhouse in elite football, but these days there are far less edifying forces of inevitability haunting the game. Two will meet at St Mary’s early Saturday evening, Mark Hughes and Jose Mourinho passing each other on their grim inch towards oblivion, while another will be quietly anaesthetising poor little Bournemouth at the Etihad, as Man City continue their serene glide to becoming the Premier League’s first ever totally frictionless champion side, quietly hoovering up bought glory like a team full of Roombas busy at work in a deserted billionaire ghost home.
So cherish Robben while he is still here, haring down his beloved, moveable 50-yard patch of turf, floodlights bouncing off his cursed pate as he turns yet another left back into the scarecrow on his own personal allotment, the RSI MVP who is so easy to read, yet so difficult to put down.