The Dutchman retired just as Arsenal moved from Highbury to their new home, playing his testimonial as the first match in the new stadium.
Bergkamp will join legends such as Thierry Henry and Tony Adams in being honoured by the club in such a way, but there is something different about what he really means to this club, and his particular role at the North London outfit. After Adams went, Arsenal still won a title and then went through a season unbeaten. Henry’s stay at Arsenal ran into the start of their trophy drought. It was Bergkamp who left just as Arsenal embarked on their decline.
It is easy to forget just how important the Dutchman was to Arsenal. He was the player who was most important to Arsenal’s victories. Sol Campbell provided solidity, Patrick Vieira strength and leadership, a real driving force, and Thierry Henry was a ruthless finisher whose skill and confidence was the perfect combination in the final third. But it was Bergkamp who made Arsenal the glorious attacking team they were. He was in brilliant form in the 1997-1998 season as Arsenal first won the title under Arsene Wenger.
Bergkamp was not always a regular at Arsenal and it is no coincidence that it was not until he found his best form again in the 2001-2 season that the club again reached the heights of winning the Premier League. And during the Invincibles season Bergkamp was utterly brilliant.
It is so easy to forget some of the passes. Bergkamp had an incredible ability to find Freddie Ljungberg in particular, but also Thierry Henry and Robert Pires when they made runs in behind defences. His passing was incredibly precise, and his vision wonderful. No player under Wenger has possessed Bergkamp’s combination of vision, passing accuracy and weight of passing. He knew exactly when to pass the ball, how to pass it and who to give it to. Rarely did he make an error, and his decision making was superb. In a team like Arsenal, who play on the edge, always seeking the inch perfect killer ball, Bergkamp was absolutely vital.
One example stands out. As Arsenal went to Chelsea in the unbeaten season, they went 1-0 down in the opening minute. 20 minutes later, Bergkamp got the ball just inside the Chelsea half. Vieira was making a run forward. Bergkamp saw a hole emerging in the Chelsea defence even before it was there, and Vieira was running right towards it. He waited for the right moment, and played an inch perfect pass which slowed down just as the ball ran slightly ahead of Vieira. The pass completely dissected the Chelsea defence, giving their defenders no chance to defend the ball, and gave Vieira the ball in the perfect position to finish.
That was typical Bergkamp. And who has scored a better goal than that moment of sheer class, the improvised backheel on the turn against Newcastle that gave him a simple side foot finish at St James’ Park that season? Bergkamp’s sublime touch and passing put him on another level. His intelligence, intricate passing and touch make him the greatest player I have ever seen grace an Arsenal shirt. Perhaps Arsenal will have success again when they finally replace their most brilliant of Dutchmen.