Dennis Bergkamp: The Dutch Master
“If you are in the game, on the bench or watching on TV, you want to learn from Dennis Bergkamp.”
These words, spoken by his former Arsenal team mate Thierry Henry, concisely sum up Dennis Bergkamp’s influence on the game. Since retiring from playing professional football in 2006, Bergkamp has embarked upon a coaching career in his home country. In October 2008 he was appointed assistant to Johan Neeskens for the Netherlands B team and in August 2011 he became Frank de Boer’s assistant at Ajax. Although Henry’s comments originate from Bergkamp’s playing career, they also go some way towards explaining why he is considered to have huge potential as a football manager by so many within the game.
Henry, who formed a deadly partnership with Bergkamp during the tail-end of the Dutchman’s career, claims that Dennis Bergkamp was the best player he ever played with – high praise from a man who played alongside greats like Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho. However, football is littered with examples of excellent football players who failed to transition into excellent football managers. What sets Bergkamp apart from many of them is his sharpness of mind and deep intellectual understanding of how the game is played.
“Behind every action there must be a thought,” Bergkamp once famously stated. It’s a remarkably simple explanation, but it is also a philosophy which encaptures Bergkamp’s career. Not blessed with blistering pace or a particularly impressive physique, Bergkamp needed to make intelligent decisions on the pitch. And Bergkamp’s intelligence made him into the great footballer he was. Having joined the famous Ajax Academy at the age of 11, he learned the intricacies of the game from a young age. As part of his education, during his youth career he was encouraged to play in every out-field position on the pitch. And while many top footballers possess similar ability to Bergkamp in processing thoughts quickly on the field, he has an unusual aptitude for reflecting on individual pieces of play and articulately de-constructing them.
During his career, Bergkamp won four league titles, two UEFA Cups and four FA Cups. Yet, for many people, his defining moment came during a competition he was never able to win. In the last minute of the 1998 World Cup quarter final between the Netherlands and Argentina, Bergkamp elegantly leapt into the air to control a 60-yard pass from Frank de Boer, brought it down with a precise touch, slipped the ball through defender Roberto Ayala’s legs and finished with a superb right-footed volley. The entire move took about eight seconds.
Bergkamp later explained:
“It starts a little bit before, with the eye contact. You’re watching him. He’s looking at you. You know his body language. You know that you are running in a straight line, and that’s the line you want to take to the goal, the line where you have a chance of scoring. If you go a little bit wider it’s gone. So you have to jump to meet the ball and at the same time control the ball. Control it dead.”
Even for Bergkamp, a man whose career is littered with great goals resulting from his exquisite first-touch, his control in this instance was remarkable. However, Bergkamp had no time to admire his own brilliance.
“Everything can still go wrong [at that point] so you are concentrating on doing it step by step,” he said. “But you don’t know the steps. You can only do the second step if the first step is right. If the ball shoots on a little bit further, then you have to adjust again.”
The next step of the move required getting past Roberto Ayala. Again, Bergkamp is able to break the passage of play down and explain it on an intellectual level.
“We are both going one way, but of the two of us I’m the only one who knows I want to go somewhere else. He’s running with you and as soon as the ball changes direction, and you change direction as well, then he’s gone.”
At this point, having beaten the defender, Bergkamp found himself in a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper. While it seemed like the hard work was already complete, Bergkamp’s mind was still going into overdrive. The position of the ball and of Bergkamp’s body meant that the shot was going to be difficult. It perhaps favoured a left-footed effort and for a two-footed player like Bergkamp, that would have been a serious consideration. However, Bergkamp opted for his right-foot.
“I choose to take it with my right [foot], ideally, the outside of the right and aim it for the far post, then let it turn in. Take it away from the goalkeeper and let it come in.”
And that’s exactly what happened. In eight seconds, Bergkamp’s intelligence and skill won the match for his team and took them into a World Cup semi-final. “It’s a goal from another planet,” Louis Van Gaal concluded. “If he were in ‘Star Trek’ he’d be the best player in whatever solar system he was in,” remarked Ian Wright.
Bergkamp’s ‘out of this world’ ability as a player commands the respect of footballers everywhere. Such a deep understanding of the game will ultimately set Bergkamp in good stead for a career in football management. During his playing career, his former manager Arsene Wenger explained that he felt Bergkamp did not always get the credit he deserved in the media for his ability; primarily because he did not court media attention or make dramatic statements in the press. While his reserved nature may have limited his media exposure as a footballer, his professionalism and natural enthusiasm for the game will help to serve him well as a manager.
As Henry said, players will be keen to learn from the Dutch master. Compatriot Robin Van Persie told a story to FT.com about his own experience learning from Dennis Bergkamp. “I had such gigantic respect for that man. I sat next to him in the changing room. He had number 10, I had number 11, so every day I sat next to my idol,” he said.
On one occasion, having finished his own training for the day, Van Persie sat in a Jacuzzi and looked out of the window at the Arsenal training complex. He saw Bergkamp mentoring some of the Arsenal youth players. Van Persie said, astonished by what he had witnessed:
“They were doing a passing exercise. In that 45-minute session, he didn’t hit a single bad pass. He did not make a single mistake. Everything 100 per cent, to the maximum. Passing in really hard, receiving the ball, bouncing it back at once – so beautiful.And no one was watching. Only a fitness coach and some youths were there. I thought: ‘That man is so unique’. Purely for his own sake he does not want to make any mistakes. That is what I wanted as well. As a youngster you need answers. These don’t always come in the form of words. From then on, I did every exercise 100 per cent. Because I wanted to be like Bergkamp.”