As the English Premier League era began to flourish in the late 90s and early 2000s, one player brought continental flair and creativity like no other.
Dennis Bergkamp was one of the best players in European football for a time. He had one of the best first touches the Premier League has ever seen and often scored spectacular goals. The reserved Dutchman could keep the ball away from opponents with world-class quality.
He was a serial winner and lifted many domestic and European trophies in his 20-year career.
Bergkamp – The Early Days
Bergkamp was born in Amsterdam in 1969. His father, Wim Bergkamp was an electrician who played amateur football in the city’s suburbs. Such was his love of the game, Wim named his son Dennis after legendary Scottish player, Dennis Law.
From a young age, Bergkamp was surrounded by football. Eventually, his outstanding football potential was recognised by Dutch giants Ajax. Whilst playing for Ajax’s youth teams, Bergkamp learned to play in almost every outfield position on the pitch. Ajax practised Dutch philosophy of ‘Total Football’, which developed players in every outfield position. It was an experience that helped him as an attacker later in his career.
Ajax – 237 Appearances – 121 Goals
Bergkamp rose through the youth levels at Ajax and eventually made his first-team debut in 1986. Dutch legend Johann Cruyff was manager of Ajax at the time and he had great faith in Bergkamp. Cruyff continued to believe in Bergkamp and handed him 23 appearances in total during the 1986/87 season. At just 17 years old, Bergkamp lifted the Dutch Cup.
After a fine start at Ajax, Bergkamp went on to be a regular at the club for another six seasons. During this time, he showcased his exceptional talent to both score and create goals. Between 1990 and 1993, Bergkamp was the top scorer in the Dutch league and scored 29 goals in 36 games during the 1990/91 season. He also won two Dutch Footballer of the Year awards for consecutive seasons between 1991 and 1992.
With his hometown club, Bergkamp won both domestic and continental honours. He helped his side to win the Dutch title in 1989/90 and was part of the UEFA Cup-winning team in 1992. However, after such success, larger teams across Europe started to take not of Bergkamp’s exceptional talents.
Inter Milan – 72 Appearances – 21 Goals
In the summer transfer window of the 1993/94 season, Bergkamp joined Inter Milan for an estimated £8 million. However, the move did not turn out to be successful for Bergkamp. Despite signs of a bright start, where the forward scored a hat-trick in the first match of the UEFA Cup against Rapid Bucharest, he struggled to perform at the level he reached with Ajax.
Bergkamp finished his first season with just eight goals in 31 league games. But, he continued to impress on the European stage and helped Inter to win the UEFA Cup. During the tournament, the Dutch striker scored eight goals and won the Golden Boot for the 1993/94 season.
In the following season, Bergkamp struggled to hold down a place in the first team. He suffered from stress injuries and was vilified in the Milan press, who regarded his reserved nature as rude and disinterested. The relationship between Bergkamp and the fans was poor and his problems on and off the pitch only led to 24 appearances and three goals throughout the season.
Arsenal – 404 Appearances – 110 Goals
After a challenging second season at Inter, Arsenal took advantage and signed Bergkamp for a club-record fee around £10 million. It was a move that marked a turning point for Arsenal. The club had previously struggled in the early 90s but Bergkamp signified a turning point in the club’s history.
Throughout a successful 10 year spell with Arsenal, Bergkamp won three Premier League titles, four FA Cups and three English Super Cups. After Arsenal’s first Premier League title under Arsene Wenger in 1998, Bergkamp was named as the club’s player of the year. During the 1997/98 season, he scored 20 goals and assisted 11 in 34 matches.
A huge part of Arsenal’s success came from Bergkamp’s partnerships with strike partners Ian Wright and Thierry Henry. With the latter, he formed a formidable partnership that was integral to Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ season in 2003/04. Arsenal didn’t lose a game for the entire season and won the Premier League. Between Henry and Bergkamp, they scored 44 goals in the entire season, becoming one of the greatest strike partnerships in Premier League history.
Dutch National Team – 79 Appearances – 37 Goals
Bergkamp’s international career with the Netherlands lasted for over a decade and he represented his nation in five consecutive tournaments. Despite a strong goal-scoring record for his nation, Bergkamp did not win a major international competition but he came close on numerous occasions.
In his first major tournament, Euro 1992, Bergkamp scored three goals and helped the Netherlands reach the semi-finals with the Netherlands. But they have eliminated in the semi-finals to eventual winners Denmark.
Two years later, Bergkamp scored another three goals at World Cup ’94 in the USA and reached the quarter-finals with the Netherlands but lost 3-2 to Brazil. He then contributed to six of the Netherlands goals in World Cup ’98, helping his country to a fourth-place finish, losing on penalties to Brazil again in the semi-finals.
Bergkamp played his final major tournament for the Netherlands at Euro 2000, where his team reached the semi-finals. Following the Netherland’s elimination from the tournament, Bergkamp announced his retirement from international duty so he could focus on his club career.
Style of Play
Bergkamp scored some of the most iconic goals in the Premier League, which reflected his style of play. His first touch was unrivalled and his technique was on of the best professional football has ever seen.
But, a big part of Bergkamp’s play was his unselfishness, reflected by the amount of assists he provided in his career. Bergkamp had the ability to draw players towards him, in turn, creating space for other players in more attacking positions. Arguably, this talent released Thierry Henry to score many of his Premier League goals for Arsenal.
Bergkamp was influential in creating the modern football role of the second striker. The Dutch wizard was one of the first to play in a withdrawn striker role, and often found space between the oppositions midfield and attack. More recently, players like Wayne Rooney, Francesco Totti and Lionel Messi have found success in the second striker position.
At Arsenal, Bergkamp is regarded as one of the greatest ever to represent the club. A statue of the legendary forward was erected outside the Emirates Stadium in 2014, while the Dutch FA also raised a statue outside their headquarters in Zeist.
But Bergkamp was on of the first – a pioneer for modern football, particularly in the Premier League. After his retirement in 2006, Bergkamp returned to Ajax in a coaching role and spent over a decade at the club coaching youth teams and the senior team.