While a breakneck Arsenal overtake rivals in the record books, let’s hear it for the slowcoach. Even in his youth Dennis Bergkamp did not specialise in outstripping opponents and now that he is 35 the Dutchman is more suited than ever to being the still point in a side of incorrigible sprinters.
The Dutchman is a particular delight because his has been a spasmodic longevity. A couple of years ago he seemed to be tapering off at Highbury, so his current, majestic form is a windfall for every spectator. Thierry Henry and Jose Antonio Reyes have plenty in reserve for future seasons but Bergkamp must be relished while stocks last.
Pitches will deteriorate, the weather will worsen, opponents will get nastier and Arsenal will grow careworn. This is Bergkamp’s hour, when everything about him, including his strength, is taking other teams aback. It was all on show even in the Community Shield, when he plopped ideal passes two or three metres behind the Manchester United defence.
He is not the very greatest footballer his country has produced, but he may be the perfect embodiment of the Dutch concept of the game. Bergkamp has that spatial imagination. He is hyper-sensitive when sizing up position, angle and possibility. The very best of his goals are hymns to geometry.
No one else would have won a World Cup quarterfinal quite as he did against Argentina in 1998. The crowd in Marseille basked in the Mediterranean light and in the illumination of his mind. Receiving a 50m crossfield pass from Frank de Boer, one touch controlled it, a second foxed a marker and the third planted a shot in the net.
Two years ago at St James’ Park he manoeuvred when no room at all was apparent. He whirled, slipping the ball round one side of Nikos Dabizas while he spun free on the other to finish. For all the Greece centre-half knew about it, Bergkamp might just as well have disappeared in a puff of smoke.
When he talks, the forward is more scholar than magician. He locates the source of that goal against Newcastle in the pass from Robert Pires, accurate to within a few centimetres, that put him in an ideal position to turn. Bergkamp has the cerebral trait of someone who scores regularly rather than prolifically.
It is not snobbery that constrains him. The veteran is truly regretful that he never did find out how you get the habit of stabbing the ball home from the midst of a six-yard box rumpus. And yet detachment, for good or ill, is part of everything that makes Bergkamp what he is.
In all respects he is slightly out of reach. None of the thumbnail assessments will quite do. Yes, he is diffident, always glad to retreat to his wife Henrita, the three children and the garden of his house in Hadley Wood. And yet this contemplative soul, while protesting that any contact was accidental, has the habit of clocking people, with Blackburn’s Nils-Eric Johansson twice being hit.
There is no unequivocal verdict about the exact value of his career. Certain older Dutch players, laden with winners’ medals from the European Cup or enshrined as members of the national team that took the 1988 European Championship, tend to think he should have achieved more. They ponder his character, sensing that something is always withheld.
Despite those strictures this supposed wallflower is, by other measures, a robust survivor. He is in his 10th season in England. Inconceivable as it sounds, there was no ArsÃ¨ne Wenger in the Premiership when Bergkamp came to Arsenal. Before that he had already won the Cup Winners’ Cup once and the Uefa Cup twice with European clubs.
He can seem remote, literally so when a fear of flying keeps him apart from European matches, but it must be enthusiasm that has him so embroiled in the Highbury project. Negotations over the annual extension to his contract were testy last year, yet he did sign again.
Wenger has reservations about outfield players once they are past 30, but any doubts about Bergkamp are presently being quelled. Until Henry slotted home in stoppage time, the side had held just a one-goal advantage over Middlesbrough for 24 minutes of the 5-3 win on Sunday, but the ageing Dutchman was not substituted.
Bergkamp is bound to get jaded and weary later in the campaign, but for the moment even Wenger wants to see as much as possible of him.
Although the legs may tie up, there is accelerated thinking to leave adversaries for dead. Catch him now while opponents can’t. —