Legend Bergkamp questions Arsenal’s ‘winning mentality’
The first time I met Dennis Bergkamp he was heading the other way. Forced to retire with a knee injury in the summer of 1995, I popped into the Arsenal training ground on the first day of pre-season to say my goodbyes.
If that was an emotional time for me, it was a happier one for the new signing billed as my replacement.
"All the best Dennis," I said. "Hope everything goes well." Looking back now, safe to say that the lad did okay in the end.
Seventeen years later the 42-year-old Bergkamp cuts a contented figure as he walks into the canteen of Ajax's training ground, back at the club where it all began. His glittering career for club and country included 11 years at Arsenal that reaped three Premier League titles, four FA Cups and countless personal accolades.
Arsenal, who travel to AC Milan tonight for the first leg of their last-16 Champions League tie, have not won any silverware since Bergkamp's departure in 2006. The Dutchman refuses to blame manager Arsene Wenger for the trophy drought, but believes there are fundamental problems in the squad and in the players' mentality.
"I feel there are a lot of similar players there at the moment," he reasons. "It needs to be more diverse. You need a few strong characters who can get the team going, in training as well as matches. You also need a few players who can make a difference in terms of scoring goals. I don't feel there are enough of them.
"You look at the midfield and compare it with ours. We had Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Ray Parlour -- when it wasn't working for one of the big names, one of these could step up. You can't only depend on one or two players. When they're having an off day, you need someone else."
He refers, in the main, to Robin van Persie, who has even surprised his compatriot by scoring so many goals as an out-and-out frontman.
"To be honest, I would still prefer to see Robin play a bit deeper behind the main striker, so that he could pick his moments the way I used to. I think he could be even better in that role, but the way he's playing now you can hardly blame the coach for putting him there."
Yet not even Van Persie's heroics have quelled the rumbling discontent. Many supporters would probably nod in agreement at the following thoughts.
"Sometimes you need more of a winning mentality than a passing mentality," Bergkamp argues. "I'm not sure Arsenal have enough of that in their players. Sometimes I see their games and it's always the same way of playing, a bit too predictable. They are all fantastic players, that must be said, but sometimes you need a bit more."
And what of Wenger? Under the circumstances, can Bergkamp see his old boss staying at the Emirates much longer?
"Yeah, I think so, because the way I know him, he's a winner. He can't just let go. He would think he hasn't finished there yet. He would want to finish on a high or at least do something that makes the team successful again.
"So, I think he will wait and push hard to achieve that before he leaves.
"I worked with Arsene for 11 years and it goes up and down. You do well, then you need some time to rebuild, then you do well again. But the thing now is that he isn't winning any trophies."
Perhaps there are comparisons to be drawn here with the situation at Ajax. Much like Arsenal, the Dutch giants are struggling this season to keep up with the league leaders and have historically reared and nurtured exceptional talent.
Bergkamp's job as an assistant to manager Frank de Boer involves stepping in to coach individuals, usually the strikers. The role carries its own responsibilities, ones Bergkamp takes very seriously, but at the end of the day he drives home to his family free from the pressures of his friend De Boer.
The job, it would seem, perfectly suits his keen eye for detail, an attribute well known to his old Arsenal team-mates who would look on with fascination when the striker stopped back after training to methodically hone a technique already second to none. Part of the challenge now is accepting that today's generation doesn't necessarily thirst for such perfection.
"That's the big thing we want to change," says Bergkamp, who is also connected with Ajax's youth department. "We are working very hard to try to keep the players interested. "It sounds silly, but that's how it is nowadays. We always had the drive to win trophies, to be the best. I think the drive of a lot of young players now is to make as much money as possible. It's a different mentality but you have to work with it, try and deal with it."
In a way I'm relieved, having heard the same complaint from several coaches in England. It isn't just in England that problems exist.
The other tricky part -- something Arsenal are also finding now -- is keeping players they do produce out of the clutches of wealthier rivals. That's what makes it so difficult competing with the likes of Manchester United, Ajax's opponents tomorrow in the Europa League.
"We look at it as a sort of bonus," Bergkamp explains. "If we can get something, great. But we played against Real Madrid in the Champions League this season and they swept us aside. It was a few steps too high. I think Man United might also be out of reach. The danger is that we show them too much respect."
How Ajax could do with a young Bergkamp tomorrow. Come to that, how Arsenal could tonight.
"The more I look back, the more I realise what a special time it was," he says. "It was knowing you had a great team around you. It was knowing you could make the difference when you went on that pitch -- 'no one's going to beat me today'.
"It's not arrogance. It's just how you felt. It was the same with Thierry Henry. You would just give him the ball and he would do the rest. I remember when a young Patrick Vieira came on at half-time to make his debut. He changed the game by himself."
Vieira went over with his family to stay recently. "Me and Patrick talked about the old days," Bergkamp says with a smile. "It was kind of special."
AC Milan v Arsenal,
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