Dennis Bergkamp: The Resolute Mastermind Behind One of the Great Arsenal Sides

In the middle of the 1990s, amid the early days of the BSkyB Revolution, the newly-conceived Premier League began to import not just foreign players, but geniuses.

From Juninho, to Eric Cantona to Gianfranco Zola, their names are said like incantations, invoking a strange and heady time where a single, cerebral individual could forever alter the course of a football club.

And yet from Juninho's injuries, to Zola's advanced age when he joined Chelsea, to Cantona's proclivity for kicking people in the head, this genius seemed to come at a cost to every club who dared to try and channel it, and with each of these signings there is a sense of what might have been.

Not with Dennis Bergkamp, though.

In a sport where a 'genius' can more often than not serve as a problem, a self-interested cloud gazer who destroys the equilibrium of a team with their solipsism, Bergkamp was that rarest of once-in-a-lifetime talents - one for whom the equilibrium of the team was at the centre of everything.

What was it that made Bergkamp's particular artistry so enduring, and so integral to one of the most glorious periods in Arsenal's modern history? The answer is that his career was a perfect constellation of unique footballing ability, a resolute mentality, and the good fortune which all great minds seem to benefit from.

From when he arrived at Highbury to when he played his last game, everything seemed so right in Bergkamp's Arsenal career, but to attribute this to chance alone ignores the values which unwaveringly informed the Dutchman's choices throughout a glittering career.

Bergkamp's philosophy, in his own words, is relatively simple. The disciple of Johan Cryuff and Glenn Hoddle loved winning, but above all, he loved 'doing it in a nice way', and when he found himself marooned at a 'defensive' Inter side where things didn't feel right, he took 'a little bit of a gamble' and joined Bruce Rioch's Arsenal in 1995 (all quotations taken from the Dennis Bergkamp | Arsenal Legends documentary).

Here he found what he refers to (in a positive sense) as 'more of a Dutch style' of football, but after an early scoring drought he soon found himself, like a lot of football geniuses before him, receiving some sideways glances from the English press.

His sensational first two goals for Arsenal against Wimbledon, one a pinpoint volley and the other a thumping top-corner howitzer, gave a taste of what was to come, however, and his near-supernatural reputation grew so much that by the time Bergkamp delivered European football (at Spurs' expense) with a belting final-day goal against Bolton, his strike partner Ian Wright joked Arsenal prayed for 'a sign' from him and he delivered.

Bergkamp admits to having second thoughts about his Arsenal career when Rioch left, but something far more important to both his career and the story of the nascent Premier League was about to take place, as Arsenal themselves gambled on a relative managerial unknown named Arsène Wenger.

'We had the same idea about football,' says Bergkamp of Wenger, and one of the most productive marriages between a player and a manager was born with something extraordinary beginning to happen as Arsenal headed into the new millennium of football.

Even before Thierry Henry, The Invicibles and all those FA Cups, Wenger managed to utterly transform the team, not only through the much-documented dietary regimen, but also in artfully combining two things which spoke to Bergkamp's inner being - stirring, scintillating football and the desire to win it all.

For Bergkamp, the English core of Martin Keown, Tony Adams, Ray Parlour and others took care of the 'mental side' of the new-look Arsenal, leaving him and other foreign exports like the newly-arrived Marc Overmars to focus on the 'footballing' side of things.

In the 1997/98 season Bergkamp did exactly that, playing with a rare freedom and producing some of the most breathtaking moments of improvisation ever seen on a football pitch.

It is impossible to forget his hattrick goal against Leicester, a series of deft flicks which was so improbable that the end product resembles a goal from a bad football film. But the other two - a swerving missile from a short corner routine and a nonchalant flick round the defender before a mercurial bit of fortune with the finish - are indicative of the supreme confidence that Bergkamp was playing with in the season where Arsenal won their first title under Wenger.

But after this stellar season, where Bergkamp was voted PFA Players' Player of the Year after accumulating 16 goals and 11 assists, Wenger to some extent was forced to go back to the drawing board to deal with an increasingly strong Manchester United side, who having won the treble under Sir Alex Ferguson in 1999 were beginning to pull away from the north London club.

Bergkamp himself was painfully aware of what was at stake during United's ascendancy, having missed a penalty which would have sent the Red Devils out of the FA Cup during their treble run - he never took one thereafter.

Wenger's response to the success of his old adversary was to make the most inspired signing of his tenure at Arsenal in Thierry Henry, thus preparing Arsenal for a new, even more illustrious cycle, where Bergkamp remained a constant.

Bergkamp's role in the Arsenal side which won two Premier League titles in the early 2000s sounds simple enough if you break it down - as a second striker in what resembled a modern 4-2-3-1, he was responsible for dropping deep and receiving the ball with the intention of finding Henry.

The reality of such a role is that it required a player with exceptional vision, mobility and technique, and yet watching Bergkamp endlessly slide through-balls towards the left-hand side of the box, where an obliging Henry or Overmars would finish across the keeper, you'd have thought it was as intuitive as riding a bike.

Bergkamp, one of the few players versatile enough as an attacking threat to hold everything together, was the facilitator of Arsenal's fluid, constantly interchanging style of play, which when revisited looks years ahead of its time. A firm believer that 'you need other players to make yourself better', Bergkamp's influence can be felt in the abandon with which Arsenal's wingers poured forward, knowing that they would receive the perfect pass to feet.

This flurry of movement and sophisticated positional play, all made possible by Bergkamp, bought Arsenal their greatest ever accolade - the 2003/04 Premier League title, won at White Hart Lane and made golden at Highbury against Leicester.

But the tragedy of the sporting genius is that while their mind remains active, their body will never be able to keep up, and Bergkamp found himself an increasingly peripheral figure during Arsenal's 2005/06 Champions League final run, which was also their last season at Highbury.

'I never played my perfect game,' he reflected, after a career which saw him achieve so much with Arsenal but lacked the gloss of a Champions League trophy or international glory with the Netherlands. And yet when it comes to the manifestation of footballing genius in this country, not many can claim to have done a more perfect job than Bergkamp.

Source : 90min