The master and the apprentice: Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry at Arsenal

The master and the apprentice: Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry at Arsenal

This feature is part of Duology

“Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp!” The Dutchman cannot be mentioned without this immortal piece of commentary from the 1998 World Cup coming to mind, but at club level his name was seldom heard without being closely followed by that of his strike partner, Thierry Henry.

At the same tournament, the young Frenchman was bursting on to the international scene. At just 20 years of age he would end up as top scorer for his country, who of course went on to win the trophy, while a defeat on penalties for the Netherlands at the hands of Brazil meant that the pair were not destined to meet in the final. It would be another year before they united at Arsenal, forming a partnership that would shape the club for the next seven seasons.

In fact, the year preceding his move to Arsenal was an especially tough one for Henry. He couldn’t recreate his Monaco and France form at new club Juventus, where he was forced to play wide against defences far more disciplined than those he had grown accustomed to facing.

Bergkamp, meanwhile, was having no such problems at the English club. He achieved the impressive feat of reaching double figures in the league for both goals and assists, only missing out on the title on the final day of the season. This success was coming under the tutelage of Arsène Wenger, who had given Henry his senior debut for Monaco five years previously and the French coach opted to gamble upon his old striker once more, following his tough spell in Italy, paying a club record fee to acquire his services. The decision proved to be one of Wenger’s very best.

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The connection between Henry and Bergkamp, which grew to be almost telepathic, was not instantaneous. The strong form of Nwankwo Kanu, an out-and-out striker if ever there was one, thwarted any hopes of a regular pairing up front between the Dutchman and the new acquisition. Wenger began the season with all three of them on the field, shifting Henry out wide to accommodate all of the talent, but soon settled upon rotation as the policy for much of the campaign.

Not one of the trio surpassed 26 league starts. Nevertheless, there were glimpses of what was to come. On an individual level it was an excellent campaign for Henry, who managed 17 league goals, while Bergkamp exerted much creative influence as well as chipping in with six league goals of his own. The team never looked capable of posing a threat to Manchester United, however, who won the league by a very comfortable margin of 18 points.

In many ways, it was a similar story in the following season. As if starting places had not been hard enough to come by already, Robert Pirès and Sylvain Wiltord were added to the strike force. This surfeit of attacking talent was particularly damaging to Bergkamp as he was reduced to fewer than 20 league starts and managed just three goals on the way to another runners-up finish for the Gunners. At 30 years of age, it seemed likely that his time at Arsenal was coming to an end.

Fans were left ruing the fact that Henry had not come to Highbury just a little sooner, as another 17-goal haul established him as a firm favourite amongst the fans. The prospect of him in a partnership with Bergkamp in his prime was a tantalising one, but appeared to be little more than a pipe dream. However, this failed to account for the remarkable renaissance of the Dutchman. 

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The 2001/02 season marked the start of the golden age for Arsenal under Wenger. Plenty of purists argue that this was truly the best Arsenal side of the last two decades, surpassing even the Invincibles that were to come two seasons later. Central to the success were Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, finally playing together up front as a bona fide duo. It was Wiltord who transitioned into a wider role to allow the partnership to flourish and the result was arguably the most iconic strike partnership of the Premier League era.

Each knew his role: Bergkamp was the creator, calling upon his wealth of experience to lay on chance after chance for the finisher, Henry. This came naturally to the Frenchman as he tucked away 24 goals in the league to secure the Golden Boot. More impressive than individual accolades, however, was the league title. The pair combined to help finally wrest the trophy from the hands of Manchester United, to whom they had been runners-up for the previous two seasons.

Some moments of sheer inspiration helped them on their way, not least amongst which was one of the goals in a 2-0 away win over Newcastle. Bergkamp, so often the provider, found the net himself with a goal that epitomised his supreme talent. Having received the pass from Robert Pirès, he deftly flicked the ball past defender Nikos Dabizas. Bergkamp then span around his man on the other side, but instinctively knew where his own flick would end up, and latched on to it before slotting it past the goalkeeper. Ironically, Henry was absent through injury for this moment of magic but it neatly encapsulated the joy and creativity upon which the partnership thrived.

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This, surely, was a final heroic send-off for Bergkamp. It had been a remarkable campaign, during which he and Henry had combined in ways that moved the parameters of what it meant to form an effective pairing up front, but the veteran was now 33. Unbelievably, however, he was not done yet and Henry was just beginning to hit his prime.

As Bergkamp amazed, by refusing to burn out, the French forward’s star shone brighter than ever. The 2002/03 campaign saw him end on an astounding 32 goals and 23 assists in all competitions, sufficient to secure a runner-up finish in the World Player of the Year award. As a team, Arsenal were unable to retain their title but they did take home another FA Cup. The mutual admiration that the pair had for each other could be seen both on and off the pitch; Henry declared Bergkamp to be the best player he had ever played with, while the Dutch maestro insisted that his strike partner was “the complete package.”

In truth, though, the package was only ever complete when the two played together. Each was blessed with their own immense individual talent but the combination took them onto a new plain altogether. Indeed, in the 2003/04 season, the whole team were propelled to something never achieved before or since in the Premier League. Much ink has been spilled over the Invincibles season, but in truth, the headline record speaks for itself: an entire league campaign unbeaten.

It would be a disservice to the phenomenal squad that Wenger assembled to place all of the praise on the duo of Bergkamp and Henry but they were undoubtedly the talismans. In a team of greatness, the master and his apprentice stood out. Henry, by now, had become the more important of the pair, but Bergkamp still featured in well over two-thirds of the games on the way to the unprecedented feat and he sealed the team’s immortal place in folklore by setting up the winner in the final game of the season against Leicester. 

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The next two seasons proved to be the swansong for the clinical partnership. Bergkamp, fittingly, was beginning the process of passing the torch to another Dutchman as Robin van Persie had arrived on the scene and started turning heads very quickly. Nonetheless, Bergkamp still had a wealth of talent to offer. In the final game of 2004/05, he scored once and laid on three assists in a 7-0 routing of Everton and was met with chants of “one more year.” This was quite the vote of confidence in the longevity of a now-36-year-old Bergkamp.

It was in this campaign that Henry overtook Ian Wright as Arsenal’s all-time top scorer and it is no coincidence that he, and Wright before him, achieved this impressive record with Bergkamp providing the service. That is not to downplay Henry’s talent as an individual, however; he hit 25 and 27 league goals in the last two seasons with his partner, reinforcing his status as one of the all-time great goalscorers. It was little surprise when, a year after Bergkamp’s retirement, Henry moved to a Barcelona side emerging as one of the greatest club outfits ever assembled.

There was some poetry in the fact that Bergkamp’s career, and with it his beautiful partnership with Henry, came to an end in the same year that the club finished its time at Highbury. Arsenal had been based there since 1913 and the exploits of Henry and Bergkamp were a final flourish in an illustrious list of achievements at the ground stretching back nearly a hundred years.

The stadium is no more, the ground upon which it once stood now a block of flats. The memories live on, however, memorialised in the minds of the fans who experienced such joy there. In much the same way, although Bergkamp eventually had to call time on his remarkable career, his partnership with Henry is an immortal one. It will forever be remembered as one of football’s greatest duos.

By James Martin @JamesMartin013

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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