Pass master who keeps Arsenal ahead in the pace race

Even at 35, Dennis Bergkamp has been the key player in Arsenal's scintillating start to the season. <i>Jason Burt </i>talked to the Dutchman about the secrets of a footballing style that can be both fast and fantastic
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Dennis Bergkamp has been making fools of defenders throughout his career, but it's still a surprise to hear him explain that one of the favoured routines at Arsenal's state-of-the-art training ground at London Colney is to pitch their array of attacking talents against a set of dummies. "We do a lot of work with mannequins. They act as the opponents," says the Dutchman. "We do a lot of movement around them, one-touch football. Of course it's not always with mannequins, there are normal players sometimes. But it's always based on movement."

Dennis Bergkamp has been making fools of defenders throughout his career, but it's still a surprise to hear him explain that one of the favoured routines at Arsenal's state-of-the-art training ground at London Colney is to pitch their array of attacking talents against a set of dummies. "We do a lot of work with mannequins. They act as the opponents," says the Dutchman. "We do a lot of movement around them, one-touch football. Of course it's not always with mannequins, there are normal players sometimes. But it's always based on movement."

It conjures up all kinds of imagery - not least of Thierry Henry and Robert Pires tearing past tailor's models to collect Bergkamp's geometrically precise deliveries - but it also provides a clue to one of English football's most intriguing mysteries. For nearly two years now Arsenal have dazzled the Premiership with their breathtaking football. Where did the style come from, and how much of it is coached?

"Well, it started slowly," says Bergkamp who, at 35, is now in his 10th season at Highbury. "It's totally different from when I first came here. It's much more fluent, a lot of pace in the game. It's a game based on possession of the ball - and with that it is not just trying to keep it but to go forward with a positive thought in your mind."

Arsenal's ability to keep the ball for long periods, particularly against lesser Premiership opposition, has been one of their hallmarks. It is a little surprising, then, when Bergkamp explains that this is not the most important part of their gameplan. "We keep the ball," he says, "but in three, four passes we want to create a chance. It's all based on that."

But Bergkamp insists that Arsène Wenger is always looking for his players to create opportunities quickly, and even the club's newest recruits learn that immediately. "You can see the players who are brought in and how they are playing now, everything is focused on that. It's good attacking football. We try not to give a lot away defensively but most of the time we try to go forward with possession and fast football."

Fast football. It's the defining motif of Arsenal's play. "It's about pace," Bergkamp admits, but adds that there are two distinct sorts of pace. "If you are playing in your opponents' half, the pace we have is the pace of the ball. But when we have a corner against us, for example, the pace is the running of the players. The speed of the players going forward. That's why we score a lot of goals from counter-attacks. We do that quite well."

Indeed so. As ever, Wenger seems ahead of the game. At its conference in Stockholm later this month, Uefa will publish the report of its technical study group into how the 77 goals were scored at Euro 2004. It will confirm the belief that sudden breaks are the quickest route to success.

But few do it so aesthetically pleasingly as Arsenal.

Bergkamp constantly appears to be the still point amid a blur of mesmerising movement. Does Wenger coach him? "He is very focused in the training sessions, but he does not touch your style of play. If he's happy, he leaves you."

Bergkamp is the one player who pre-dates Wenger's appointment in September 1996. Bruce Rioch was Arsenal's manager when the Dutchman arrived 15 months earlier, signed for £7.5m from Internazionale. How have things changed?

"There's a big difference. Just look at the training ground, the new stadium, the players," Bergkamp says. The players in those days, of course, were mainly English, and Bergkamp is quick to pay tribute to those who were there before him - such as Tony Adams and, of course, the recently departed Ray Parlour. "I can honestly say that we would not be at this level if we did not have the start we had with all those English players. They made it happen. It's strange to say that now with all the foreigners we have, but the base was there and because of that we could grow and develop."

It is curious to hear an Amsterdamer talk about "foreigners" but there is an Englishness about Bergkamp that he readily admits to. "We always have that English mentality," he says. "No matter where you come from we all want to fight for each other. We all know this is an English club. The boss finds it very important [to emphasise that]. Everyone knows we can play the European way but we are still an English club and we have to remember that. It's something he brought with him. With the English players a few years back they were always up for it - and we've taken that attitude on."

They were, in those days, often up for something else: a night on the booze. Arsenal were renowned for it then. Initially, Bergkamp simply says that he's "a great believer in what people do off the pitch is of no one else's concern", but he later admits to having been shocked by what went on. "It was a surprise, especially at the highest level. It's strange that alcohol plays a part. That's normally the enemy for a footballer. But it's totally changed now. It's more European, and I don't think there is a part for going out and drinking alcohol, except on certain days. It doesn't go with being a top sportsman."

The players may no longer bond by drinking together, but Bergkamp insists, there is a special relationship between team-mates. "You have to understand there's a lot of competition within the team and a lot of unhappy players. Unhappy because they are not playing. And it's not just up to the manager to keep them happy. So if you have a team who will help those players, support them, then that is team spirit as well. It's not just about on the pitch. It's more like a friendship and it has been created because we've been together for many years. But it also comes because we are all similar players, have the same ideas about the game, respect and help each other. That's the main thing."

One of those friends is Patrick Vieira, who so nearly decamped to Real Madrid this summer. Bergkamp was among the first to know that the Frenchman had changed his mind. "He told me the day before he had the press conference," Bergkamp reveals. "He called me. I've known Patrick quite well over the past few years and this was a decision he made with his heart, I think." He notes the scepticism. "No, that's true," Bergkamp insists. "It was purely an emotional decision and it's a great plus for us that he's done this. It's amazing when you can compete in that way with Madrid. But when you look at our team, it's a very good team with some big names. So why go somewhere else, trying, hoping that it has the same impact? Patrick was quite calm. In his head he was happy to have made the decision. In football, and at Patrick's age [28], it's one of the biggest you have to make."

In Vieira's absence - through injury - a player less than half Bergkamp's age, the 17-year-old Cesc Fabregas, has stepped in. Bergkamp knew immediately that the precocious Spaniard, like all the young players, had talent - "otherwise they would not be training with us" - but he adds: "Cesc is a good example. If you saw him last year the technique was already there for Arsenal, but you always wonder, as a young boy, whether he had the physical side. But he's shown that now. Especially with his tackling. He's not afraid, he's a brave young guy."

Such has been his impact that Wenger has suggested it may not be Fabregas who gives way if Vieira returns, as seems likely, today at Fulham. In Vieira's absence, Bergkamp has been the captain. "It came my way because I am the longest-serving player, the oldest and probably the best to take up the position," he says. "I enjoy it while it lasts, because I know Patrick is captain. But it does give you something extra. Maybe it's the responsibility."

Such an explanation runs contrary to his image of being somewhat shy. "I don't see myself that way," Bergkamp says, "because it's difficult to see yourself like that." He does, however, admit to liking his privacy. "I'm someone who wants to be quiet outside of football. I perform better that way." He lives quietly in Hadley Wood, Hertfordshire with his wife, Henrita, and three children, and is most likely to spend his spare time gardening. The formula works. Arsenal have sprinted out of the traps at the start of the new season - 16 goals in four exhilarating Premiership victories - and Bergkamp has been in sublime form. This, of course, is his time of year. The pitches are firm, the weather fine, his body is refreshed.

All the same, did he think in the summer that Arsenal would match, perhaps even surpass, their extraordinary form of last season?

"After last year, you always think 'how good are we?' and 'can we keep it up?' You don't know where you stand after such a season. But I feel we've become a better side." It was the Community Shield victory, against Manchester United, that confirmed it. "From that moment I thought, 'Yeah, this is quite a good team'."

In Premiership terms, certainly, but one of the paradoxes of Wenger's time at Highbury is that his side have singularly failed to conquer Europe. The subject clearly rankles with many at the club, and on Tuesday they begin another Champions' League campaign at home to PSV Eindhoven. One explanation for their failure brings us back to the question of their style of play. They may simply attack too much. To begin with, Bergkamp, firmly rejects the suggestion.

"I always have a feeling that if you do well at club level in your own league you always have a chance of doing well in Europe," he says. "If the way you play is an automatic thing and you take it into Europe then you can dominate because the English league is one of the best in the world. Other teams from other countries shouldn't be a problem."

However, there is an admission. "Defensively 1-3 down against a European team is a little more difficult than playing against Middlesbrough (Arsenal came back to win 5-3), because they will close the door." However, you sense that despite the persistent failures, there is real optimism this year. "I think we can do it with our style of play because we do it day in, day out and it's automatic," he says. "It should work."

For Bergkamp, at least, time is running out to become European champions. This is, probably, his last season. "I'm going to see what happens," he says, "but the thought of retiring is stronger than last year." Winning the European Cup, and back-to-back Premiership titles, would represent the perfect farewell.