It was an inheritance that would shape not only the future of Arsenal, but of the Premier League and English football as a whole. ‘You do not find a player like that everywhere you go,’ wrote Arsene Wenger of one of the footballers most synonymous with his success in 2006. ‘It was a blessing, a gift when I arrived.’
Dennis Bergkamp will always be celebrated as one of Arsenal’s finest, but history might not have remembered the Dutchman so fondly had the manager who signed him in 1995 not been sacked within a year. Disagreements with the board and public arguments with Ian Wright ended Bruce Rioch’s Highbury reign after a single season, but things might have been different had his club-record signing hit the ground running. A return of 11 goals from 33 Premier League games represented more of a brisk jog for Bergkamp.
When Arsene Wenger arrived to replace him, it would transform both their careers. If ever a player represented a manager’s ideal style so perfectly, it was Bergkamp for Wenger. And if ever a manager was equipped and able to help one particular player fulfil their true potential, it was Wenger for Bergkamp. The two viewed football through the same prism; both were determined to alter perceptions of ‘Boring, boring Arsenal’ to ‘Beautiful, beautiful Arsenal’. They would succeed.
The only regret is that the revolutionary changes Wenger would affect in Bergkamp’s diet, training and approach would come so late in his career. The forward was already 27 when the kindred spirits were united in 1996. He started just 220 Premier League games in his ten seasons under the Frenchman, and only 113 of a possible 228 in his last six campaigns. He never started more than 28 top-flight games in any single season under Wenger.
They had both found lust and companionship at separate clubs before, but this was different. This was going through the trials and tribulations of life before meeting your true love in old age; it was that feeling of joy tinged with regret. What they had shared was glorious, but it is difficult not to wonder what could have been had they crossed paths earlier. Even now, there is a sense that they could have achieved even more.
Bergkamp turned 48 on Wednesday, the same day that Adam Lallana reached the age of 29. The England international might one day look back on his career and feel that same lament that he did not find his perfect match earlier.
Jurgen Klopp is many things, and forthright in his judgement is most certainly one of them. It was after his first game as Liverpool manager, a 0-0 draw with Tottenham in October 2015, when he offered a first public evaluation of the squad he had had bestowed upon him.
“I am not sure how many games you saw like this from Adam Lallana? What do you think?” he asked the journalists in attendance. “I know him from Southampton and he can do 20/30 per cent more,” he would add. Those who had watched Lallana’s performance raised an eyebrow in confusion; the midfielder had collapsed into his new manager’s arms out of sheer exhaustion upon his substitution in the 81st minute.
Lallana had faced a different kind of struggle under Brendan Rodgers. He had earned a £25million move courtesy of his progress at Southampton, but was almost crushed under the weight of expectation at Anfield. A return of five goals and three assists in 31 Premier League games under Rodgers represented a poor investment as his manager seemed at a loss to find his best position. The biggest move of his career was turning into a disaster.
It was not until Klopp became Liverpool manager, 15 months after Lallana was signed, that the midfielder truly began his Anfield career. He has scored seven goals and registered seven assists in 29 Premier League games this season alone, and has found his most effective position in a midfield three. He has belatedly become one of their most important players.
“In the first year here, I heard that nobody was really happy about his performances,” Klopp said of the player who most embodies his style in January of this year. But the German has resurrected his international reputation as well as his club career. This has been a breakthrough campaign for his country: all three of his goals for England since making his debut in 2013 have come since September of last year.
This season has been the finest of Lallana’s Premier League career, underlining the innate shame that it took him until the age of 27 to link up with Klopp, and even longer to realise his true potential. But it was at White Hart Lane on that brisk Saturday afternoon when we witnessed the rebirth of one of this country’s most talented individuals. The midfielder had hared around the pitch, pressing every opponent, leading from the front, setting an example. Yet it was Mousa Dembele who was named Man of the Match in that fixture.
It is strange to think that Dembele was once in danger of being consigned to Tottenham’s vast transfer failure scrapheap. The Belgian endured two promising but ultimately forgettable years at the club after joining in 2012, gaining a reputation as a player who possessed the ability, but lacked the application.
Mauricio Pochettino arrived in the summer of 2014, but Dembele’s predicament would only worsen. He played fewer competitive minutes than Nabil Bentaleb, Ryan Mason and Federico Fazio in his first campaign under new management.
The penny had left Pochettino’s hand long before it finally dropped in July 2015. Dembele admitted the previous season had been “a big disappointment”. His manager dismissed reports of a potential sale, while conceding that the midfielder had found it “difficult” under his tutelage.
The response has been emphatic. Dembele has emerged as one of the country’s finest midfielders, and Tottenham have lost just four of the 50 Premier League games he has started over the past two seasons. The Belgian is a Rolls Royce midfielder, and has been the driving force behind Spurs’ transition from also-rans to front-runners. Pochettino has married his physical attributes with an improved mentality to wonderful effect.
Yet that same tinge of regret lingers. “We always told him that if we had taken him at 18 or 19 years old, he would have become one of the best players in the world,” Pochettino said just last month. “I would have loved to have taken him on at 18.”
Instead, they were destined to meet when Dembele was already 27; he turns 30 in July. His best years were wasted at Fulham, and then under Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood at Tottenham. That his final chapters have seen him finally meet his perfect partner after so many years is as much a cause for delight as dejection.
It is often said that Dembele could have played for Real Madrid, while Lallana has only recently emerged as one of England’s most skilled players. Both could have been so much more had they met the loves of their football lives years earlier, but it is a pleasure to see them finally realise their potential, even if it is in the autumn of their careers.
After all, if the cases of Bergkamp and Wenger, Lallana and Klopp or Dembele and Pochettino has taught us anything, Lord Alfred Tennyson had it right all along: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.