A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Mesut Özil. Within the article I addressed the increasing fetishisation of the individual among football fans and how, in a bid for one-upmanship between club supporters, the currency of the assist had increased. With fans of West Ham, Liverpool and Arsenal dueling over their anointed creative players; Payet, Coutinho and Özil, the value of assists and key passes have been puffed up in recent seasons.
One wonders how Dennis Bergkamp’s already monumental reputation might have been inflated in the current environment. His penchant for a defence splitting pass was always recognised as one of his most valuable attributes. But I would argue that, in a modern context, he would be deified even further. On Friday evening, a video of his masterful outside of the boot pass for Patrick Vieira at Stamford Bridge in February 2004 had ‘Arsenal twitter’ purring in recollection.
That pass 💯 pic.twitter.com/jPFUU0kzVD
— Gooner Nick (@NickVann1987) December 30, 2016
The pass itself sums Bergkamp up as a player, it is calculated and precise. The artistry is in the science, as Dennis assesses the angles and applies the perfect flourish. In a nanosecond, he decides to shift the ball onto the outside of his boot before applying the pass. By playing it with the outside of the boot, he ensures there is sufficient backspin so that it can travel safely past Claude Makelele. It arcs through the corridor of space between the Blues’ midfield and defence, the ball almost seems to be guided by the run of Vieira, who is loping into the space.
Then, just as it arrives at Vieira’s feet, the ball comes to a virtual standstill, like a faithful dog obeying its owner’s command to stay. It is as though the ball is a remote control car and Bergkamp is cradling the controller, carefully steering it even after it has left his possession. It’s a ball my lawn bowls loving Granddad would have appreciated. It leaves Vieira with the simple task of rolling it past Neil Sullivan. The ball might as well arrived courtesy of a butler on a silver tray. Dennis has lit the match before Vieira has even pressed the cigar to his lips.
Bergkamp was an undeniably skilful player, but he only broke out the ‘tekkers’ when the situation absolutely demanded it. He is a delightful player to enjoy and to analyse, because it is the thinking process behind some of his most awe inspiring movements that invite examination. His famous pirouette and finish against Newcastle was an amazing technical feat, but for me it is the instant inventiveness that causes me such wonder to this day. With Bergkamp, it was not just a question of ‘how did he do that?’ but ‘how did he think of that?!’
His assist for Freddie Ljungberg against Juventus at Highbury in December 2001 showcases his dexterity and potential for showmanship. But as he drags the ball back and forth a dizzying number of times, it is not about showing off. As he executes another dummy and a final feint before scooping the ball to the Swede, it is not about humiliating his opponent or displaying his vast technical ability, it’s about timing. In a tight space, the Iceman has to wait for the opportune moment to deliver the killer ball.
This was one of my favourite things about Bergkamp, his sense of timing. A good creative player finds the run, a brilliant creative player sees the run before the runner does. One of his finest performances occurred in a 7-0 thrashing of Everton in May 2005. We see his appreciation of space for the opening goal. Dennis saunters towards the area with the ball at his feet. 22 year old Robin van Persie immediately pleads for a pass, as he is stationed some 35 yards from goal. But Bergkamp has already sussed the situation and he denies van Persie’s request for the ball.
He has already seen space beginning to creak open in the Toffees’ defence another twenty yards or so further forward- much more favourable territory for the junior Dutchman. So Bergkamp holds onto the ball and waits, almost suggestively, for van Persie to spot the space before delivering the final pass. The penny drops for Robin, who finally sees what Bergkamp had envisaged a few seconds earlier. He runs into the gap and gratefully slams the slide rule pass past Richard Wright. There is a flicker of recognition in van Persie’s celebration as he acknowledges the sorcerer. ‘Oh, that’s why you delayed!”
Dennis saw pictures that even television cameras struggled to detect. On the final day of the 2003-04 season, Patrick Vieira is again the beneficiary of an Iceman assist as he latches onto a defence splitting pass, rounds Ian Walker and seals the Gunners’ invincibility. The reason I like this particular assist so much is because an impatient fan can be heard yelling, “FREDDIE!” as Bergkamp sizes up his options. For the camera to pick up the man’s voice so clearly, he must have been sat somewhere close to the gantry in the West Stand Upper tier.
This is the absolute premium panorama one can have of the pitch. This gentleman will have enjoyed an unrivalled view as he implored for Bergkamp to switch the ball to Freddie Ljungberg on the right wing. Again, Dennis delays, waiting for a superior option to become available. Eventually, Vieira makes a run through the Foxes defence and then the Dutchman’s radar kicks in and he delivers the coup de grace. Good players see movement, Bergkamp invited it. He demanded it.
Like a snooker player, he is three strokes ahead of everyone. As he stands over the ball he provokes movement around him. “I am not playing a pass until one of you is serious about making a good run, so chop, chop!” his stance seems to suggest. Even the gentleman sat close to the Highbury camera, the man with the best seat in the ground, suspended high above the action, has not seen what Bergkamp sees as he yells for Arsenal’s number 10 to make a much more conservative play.
Players were willing to make audacious runs because they knew Dennis could find them. See Ashley Cole’s cheeky run and header against Middlesbrough in December 2001. It was as though the Dutchman had a google map of the pitch in his brain. “It seems like you can make a run, any run, and even though there are lots of players in between, Dennis will see you,” an effusive Thierry Henry once said. Bergkamp was a playmaker in the true sense of the word, he made the play, not by responding to situations, but by creating them.
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