Being a person who started watching football because of Dennis Bergkamp, I had been trying to get my hands on a copy of the new book by David Winner on Dennis Bergkamp, “Stillness and Speed”. My fiancé finally got it for me and I couldn’t wait to dig into it.
Stillness and Speed reads very much unlike what a typical football biography reads like; it is constructed of a simple structure that allows for a brilliant insight into the life and mind of the genius that is Bergkamp. Winner himself, in the preface, sights the book Puskas on Puskas as one of the inspirations behind the structure of Stillness and Speed. The book is made of chapters of questions and answers with the Dutch master, detailing his time as a child to the early years in Ajax, the lost years in Italy and finally the Arsenal years. This journey is punctuated by Dennis’ accounts of the tournaments he played with the Dutch national team, and of the in-fighting amongst arguably one of the most talented national teams in the world.
There are no headline grabbing assertions, no declarations that would propel the book to the tabloids must read list, rather Stillness and Speed reads in a vein similar to how Dennis himself would play. There is class and elegance, yet a simplicity of thought and action. Dennis comes across as a connoisseur of the game, a person who ‘serves the game’ as Arsene Wenger points out. A recurring theme in his story is that of balance. For Dennis, the most important thing is the balance, whether that is in how he controls the ball or how he controls his thoughts.
There are wonderful accounts of the goal against Argentina in ’98 and the goal against Newcastle. The ’98 goal remains his One Big Moment, the moment where he says all his life led him to. In a game where he was not at his best, he has three touches and a goal. It is incredible to read his account of the goal and how his fellow players saw the moment. There are also accounts of his FA Cup penalty miss (which, it is interestingly noted, was as close as we got to the double that year, instead Man U won the treble) and his fear of flying.
Another interesting thing that comes out is his love for the sublime with respect to playing with the football. As a kid growing up, Dennis tried to understand the nuances of ball control, and for him it was always about a challenging ball that he would control. He learnt about how the various positions of the foot hitting the ball, and the pace with which the ball would be hit would result in the flight of the ball. He said to his team mates, once he arrived in Arsenal, to never give him a simple ball. He asked them to challenge him, so he can challenge himself. It is also clear that he was a big influence on players like Pires and Henry, and the group of exquisite talent that Arsenal had in the early 2000s that went on to become the Invincibles were hugely inspired by Dennis.
It is also insightful to see how Dennis saw Arsene, considering the recent flak Arsene has taken on his lack of tactical nous. Dennis saw Arsene as a fellow lover of the game, a man with a philosophy who prepares the players to extend themselves and to play with his philosophy. At the same time, the impression I get is that for Dennis, Arsene’s style is a derivative mix of the Total Football style with pace and defensive strength (an English hallmark), rather than a simple attack-at-all-costs philosophy. It is interesting to try to reconcile this vision (which was quite evident in the Arsenal teams of the early 2000s) with the teams that have been going out in the last few seasons. On the same vein, there are passages highlighting the arguments the two of them had on football and on Dennis’ decreasing playing time as he grew older. Despite that, there is great mutual respect between the two of them.
There are colorful descriptions of Dennis as a joker in the team, playing pranks on the likes of Martin Keown; and his wonderfully coincidental meeting with Ian Wright at a petrol station when he had first arrived to sign on for Arsenal. Another very unique passage in the books details Dennis’ time in Italy, with the details coming from his teammates in Inter Milan. It is evident that the Inter team did not want to change their philosophy to Dennis’; and Dennis also did not want to change himself to the Italian way. It was a marriage that was destined to fail.
Dennis comes out as a man who believes in his vision of the game, who loves the nuances of the first and second touches to the ball, who believes in the value of a tough assist rather than an easy goal. He is a believer in coaching the Ajax youngsters in a similar philosophy, raising artists with their unique visions of the game rather than off-the-shelf developed youngsters who will play a position and are trained to do what the position demands. Dennis’ comparison between structure of a position, and structural training (Where the youngster playing on the wing for instance will always run up and down and cross, but never create using the balance of players on the pitch or the spaces on the pitch) vs. a more free expressive training in which the youngster can be a creative artist with a vision. Dennis’ love for spaces and on-pitch geometry comes out brilliantly.
All in all, it is a brilliant read; a must for lovers and students of the game and lovers of Dennis Bergkamp. My only gripe with the book is that whereas his early years and Italian years are described with detail, his time at Arsenal is more anecdotal, and the season by season transition and detail feels missing. Still, a fantastic book on arguably the greatest no 10 ever.
Written by: Umair Naeem