Footballers have a pace at which they play any individual match. Dennis Bergkamp doesn’t allow himself to be affected by such trivialities.
After falling to Deportivo La Coruna in their first outing in the 2001-02 Champions League’s second group stage, it was imperative that Arsenal bounced back against Juventus before the competition took two months off.
With Bergkamp producing one of the moments of his Gunners career, though, it was never really in doubt.
Juve were a slice of fortune away from an equaliser when, instead, it was Arsenal who got the lucky break.
As the ball rebounded off referee Vitor Melo Pereira, Arsene Wenger’s team broke rapidly. Until the ball reached Bergkamp, that is.
He might have only entered the field of play 20 minutes earlier, but this wasn’t him getting up to pace with the game – it was him bringing everyone else in line with his personal tempo.
The Dutchman has always been a proponent of going low when everyone else goes high, or left when they go right.
He has been around long enough to know patience is something you earn with your actions, but when those actions are as diverse as his disgustingly good goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup and his essentially unreplicable hat-trick goal against Leicester the previous year, there’s a temptation as a defender to just let him do what he needs to do and attempt to pick up the pieces afterwards.
The harder you try to cut him off at the source, the more intent he will be to one-up you and make you regret trying.
There’s an additional issue, though, namely that you always run the risk of catching him on one of those evenings when he’s hell bent on one-upping himself.
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Even as Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires steam forward, Bergkamp barely gets beyond a jog.
He recognised that, if more energy is focused on sprinting from one end of the pitch to the other, less is focused on watching him do what he needs to do. So he slows, then he slows some more, then he waits. And then, once he’s sure everyone is ready, he gets back to business.
As someone who doesn’t travel by plane due to his fear of flying, Bergkamp has long seen the value in taking a more scenic route, especially when your arrival will be welcomed regardless of how you reached your destination.
You almost feel sorry for Paolo Montero as he wrestles with the internal war being waged between his feet and mind: this could be anyone suffering at the hands of Bergkamp, and the Juve defender just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But then we remember this isn’t a time for pity. Brilliance couldn’t exist without a victim, so there’s no point trying to will that factor away. We’ve chosen our fighter, and its name is glory.
Watching Bergkamp find a path beyond Montero and his colleagues is like watching someone escape a hedge-maze he has designed himself.
He keeps the exit just over his right shoulder, knowing he has it as a fall-back, while testing out the alternate routes to make sure they’re not too easy. All the while he’s safe in the knowledge that he might be first-guessed and second-guessed but third-guessing will always be beyond his foe.
Bergkamp begins from a point of disrespect, keeping the stepovers persisting in a spinning-the-ball-on-hit-finger manner. It feels like a carry-over from the visible anger at having to break his stride when receiving the ball to begin with. Alright, he says, if I’m going to be inconvenienced then so is everyone else.
This is what makes defending against him so impossible – in general, yes, but especially here. The real change of gears is the refusal to change gears, and to release the ball after everything’s been contained and he seems to have got bored by the whole situation.
It’s not that he has found a gap to set up Ljungberg, but rather that he’s turned into the Mario Kart character driving straight through the pressure point in a seemingly solid wall and emerging on the other side.
You can’t study to find a solution because the answer is in a different book, and Bergkamp has the only copy.
After the turn of the year, that 3-1 win would not be enough for Arsenal, with both them and Juve dropping out of the competition when Marcelo Zalayeta scored the only goal of the return game in March.
Sometimes, though, the goals you remember the best aren’t the most meaningful.
Indeed, the less important the outcome, the more you can just marvel at the brilliance itself without devoting too much attention to a narrative you never really cared about to begin with.
By Tom Victor