In the early 1990s a Dutch film producer devised an intriguing potential solution to a football mystery. Ajax's latest sensation was a slim, quiet lad with a blond rockabilly quiff, a deadly turn of speed and just about the most perfect touch anyone had ever seen. Game after game Dennis Bergkamp — for it was he — was scoring strangely calm and beautiful goals and picking out precise and unexpected passes. He could hit the ball hard when required but seemed to prefer lobs, chips and curved passes into space. Sometimes he would perform entire sequences of feather-touch passes to himself, juggling in mid-air as easily as normal players moved the ball along the ground. The question was: what was Bergkamp seeing and thinking that allowed him to conceive and perform such acts of magic? To get an answer the producer persuaded Dennis to play a practice match with a video camera strapped to his forehead. Wherever Dennis looked, the cam would look too, allowing the viewer to see the entire match from Dennis's point of view. The hottest new technology of the day would provide an insight into Dennis's brain, perhaps even his very footballing soul.

The flaws in the concept were soon apparent. As soon as Dennis arrived at the training pitch wearing a cycling helmet to which a camera had been attached with gaffer tape his team mates collapsed with laughter. They continued to guffaw, point and crack up throughout the game. The pictures were hopeless as well: jarring sequences of muddy whip-pans, bumps and jerks, unwatchable and revealing nothing whatever of the great man's thought-process. Even so, the attempt seems honourable. "Behind every action there must be a thought," Dennis had once said. And what thoughts they must have been. His Arsenal colleague Thierry Henry, who also played many times with Zinédine Zidane, considered Bergkamp the greater player. Zizou had more tricks, he explained, but Dennis saw the game more quickly and more deeply.

In other fields, creative people get asked about their art all the time. Musicians give master-classes. Novelists and architects are routinely expected to explain their sources and inspirations. Books about painters or film-makers dwell on questions of technique (Caravaggio may have used a camera obscura! Kubrick loved improvisation!). Given that football is now the most important cultural form on the planet, it's odd that creative footballers are not treated the same way. One problem is that very few players produce work that is genuinely interesting, and even fewer are articulate enough to explain what they do. Fortunately, Dennis is as thoughtful and articulate as they come. Thanks to the miracle of (conventionally-mounted) video, his remarkable body of work is still available. And it even turns out there was a simpler way to find out what he thought when he created his greatest goals and passes. You just had to ask him.

Purity

Jorge Valdano once defined footballing genius by referring to Diego Maradona's second goal against England in 1986. As Maradona ran through the England defence, Valdano kept pace alongside him in the centre-forward position, expecting a pass. After the game Maradona came to him in the shower and apologised for not giving it, even though that had been his original intention. Maradona explained that, as he neared the England goal, he remembered being in a similar situation against Peter Shilton seven years earlier at Wembley. In 1979 he had missed but, thinking about it now, he realised where he'd made his mistake. Maradona concluded that he didn't need Valdano after all and could score by himself. Footballing genius, Valdano concluded, lay in the ability to analyse and solve problems creatively under pressure at unimaginable speed. When I share the story with Dennis, our mutual friend David Endt, the Ajax team manager who is sitting in with us, chips in, "the seconds of the greats last longer than those of normal people". Dennis nods.

His goal against Newcastle in 20021 was voted by Arsenal fans as the greatest in the club's history. From my point of view, I wouldn't say (as they say) it was the best goal ever, but it's definitely in my top one. Yet it's not even Dennis's favourite. He'll tell you why himself in a minute, but let's recall the essentials. Receiving a low, driven pass with his back to goal, Dennis conjures a never-previously-imagined turn to beat the defender Nikos Dabizas, flicking the ball to the right, spinning himself left and meeting the ball again goal-side before calmly opening his body to side-foot past the advancing goalkeeper. But what was the creative process?

How had you even imagined such a thing? Was the turn practised? Was it something you'd imagined before and executed when you had the chance?

No, nothing like that. It's really difficult to explain, but it probably goes to the idea of the striker who just wants to go for goal. If the first thought is "I want to control the ball and pass", then I would never make that turn. But my first thought was "I want to go to the goal and I'm going to do whatever it takes to go to the goal, no matter how the ball comes to me". Ten yards before the ball arrived I made my decision: I'm going to turn him.

Did you think about where Dabizas was?

I knew where he was. I knew.

Did you calculate his reaction?

No, not that. But you know where the defender will be and that his knees will be bent a little, and that he will be standing a little wide, so he can't turn. And he won't expect it. The thought was, "just flick the ball and see what happens." Maybe the defender blocks it, or the flick is not wide enough, or he anticipates and gets two yards ahead. But maybe he'll be surprised and I'll be one or two yards in front of him. As it happened I still wasn't in front of him, so I had to push him off. So you need some luck as well... Actually I pushed him a little bit as well.

So it's a foul.

No, never!

The finish was also very particular.

You end up with the ball somewhere in the middle and you have to decide. Maybe you choose safety. Take it with your right and you open up the goal for yourself. Maybe the left is your weaker foot. It would have to be more of a good hit. You can't really place it. But with your right foot ... at the last moment I can go low, or high [he is pointing to the four corners of the goal]. And then you just open it and take the far corner.

So you did the Maradona thing? You thought it all through at incredible speed?

It's more instinctive because you know from training sessions and from other games. You know how the ball will bounce, and how the defender will turn. You know when you push him where the ball will end up, and where the goalkeeper is. It's not like you've done that for the first time, that shot and that push. You know from previous times.

Is it your favourite goal?

No.

Why not?

There's a lot of luck. If the defender takes one step back then it's finished. So it's not pure. The Leicester and Argentina goals were pure: when the pass came I knew what I want to do: control, ball inside, finish. With this one there was luck.

Seeing the Future

Do you see the balloon man? Wait. Wait!" 

"What are we waiting for?" 

"Wait. Wait. Wait ....WAIT!"

It's the chase scene in Spielberg's Minority Report. Tom Cruise and the clairvoyant girl (a 'precog' as those who can see the future are termed in the film) have fled to a shopping mall. As the cops close in, the clairvoyant understands — as Dennis Bergkamp would understand — the spatial possibilities amid a complex flow of movement. She knows that in a few seconds the balloon man's brightly-coloured balloons will shield them and render them invisible to the cops. The couple hold their position. The balloon man arrives, blocking the cop's view. The couple escapes and as the baffled cops disperse, we see an advertisement which reads 'See What Others Don't.'

At Arsenal, you seemed to see passes no-one else could see, and deliver the ball through gaps that didn't seem to exist. You created a lot of goals that way. How?

I think you can compare it to a quarterback. He is there to do that job and I felt the same way. You've got all those amazing players around you, moving. They've got the pace, they can score goals. You just focus on your own style of playing: you have to pass them the ball and do it in a way that they don't have to do a lot to score. You can play it in to their feet, but you can also try to play it in front of them so they are one-on-one with the goalkeeper. I was looking for that pass all the time, and the pleasure I got! It gave me so much pleasure, like solving a puzzle. Scoring goals is, of course, up there. It is known. It's like nothing else. But for me, in the end, giving the assist got closer and closer to that feeling. You know in this day and age, where there is not a lot of space, and defenders are getting quicker and stronger, you know those through-balls will make the difference in a game. And that is always what I wanted to do: to make the difference.

First in my career was scoring goals. But in the later part of my career it was giving the assist, but the perfect assist. Not the assist where [the receiver] still has to do a lot of work. In my head it was like, "ok that player is moving this way, and he is going with the attacking player... but if I pass it just in between at the right pace he can control the ball..." You know? No-one expects it. I'm playing here, but my left eye is there. I give the ball and everyone is thinking "what's he doing?" And then suddenly he is there, which I have seen. There's a tremendous amount of pleasure you get from that. To do something that someone else couldn't see.

Johan Cruyff said he was always looking for 'the solution' and that the simplest solution was always the best, the most elegant, the cleverest. It's not about beating three men with a dribble. If you can do it with one little pass, that's much better.

That's what I always hoped for. With one pass, with the right pace on the ball, because that's really important. Sometimes put a curve on it, just bend it away from the goalkeeper, or from the defender or bend it in front of your player so it gives him the extra pace which forces him to speed up... phew!

Is there any way to train that, develop it?

I'm not sure. I got a lot of pleasure out of that, so concentrated on it, and it only works with players around you who can read the passes. It's a question of respect. I respect them to score goals. I'm happy to give the assist and you get the limelight, all the attention. "What a goal!" and everything. I'm not there to get a tap on the shoulder, "Oh fantastic! What a pass!" You know? It's more like the pleasure of "he can score a goal now." It's my sort of pleasure that I've created that.

To take out five or six defenders with one ball?

It's just a feeling I get. It works for me.

But how do you see the possibilities? In Minority Report there's a chase scene where a girl who sees the future works out that the sightlines will be blocked so she can get away. When I saw that, I thought: hey, that's what Dennis does!

That's exactly right. I always had a picture in my head of how it would be in three seconds or two seconds. I could calculate it, or sense it. I'd think, "He's moving this way, and he's moving that way, so if I give the pass with that pace neither of them can touch it because they are moving away from my line. With the right pace, and with the right player coming in... yeah!" One of the perfect assists was for Patrick Vieira, against Leicester City, I think, at Highbury. I think it was our last unbeaten game [in the 2003-04 Invincibles season]. The 1-1 goal, or the 2-1, I don't remember [it was the 2-1 goal]. But it was for Patrick. It was very crowded in the box but he just made his run and I could slip it just in between... I was so proud! I can enjoy it really! And the pleasure is even greater because it was a goal that meant something as well. I always got a lot of pleasure out of assists.

Body Language

Arsenal v Juventus on a cold night in December 2001 and the Dutch commentator is screaming "Harry Potter! Harry Potter!" Dennis has just performed a piece of authentic sorcery. Later, on video, we watch him twisting, turning and doing drag-backs on the edge of the Juventus box for five full seconds. Eventually he flicks a gorgeous little reverse pass with the outside of his right foot which enables Freddie Ljungberg to run on and score.

What do you remember of that? 

It's my favourite assist, but it was not like me, I felt, to have the ball at my feet all that time. I was waiting for Freddie. It was in that period when he was always coming from somewhere and I could find him at the right time. I made a lot of assists with him, and a lot with Ashley Cole as well. It was interesting. I'd be in the centre or on the right and I'd see Ashley on the left, out of the corner of my eye, a long way away. And he's just beginning to move. If he stops, it's a silly pass for me. Like "what did he see?" But Ashley would keep running because he knew what I was going to do and I wasn't even looking. I'd be 40 yards away but I knew where he was going. I think he scored three or four times like that. I always put the ball just outside the far post, inside the box, and he would just come across with high pace, which he always does. And I think you can't defend that. You can't defend it! There hasn't been a right-winger born who will track back that far. Never.

If you only watch the close-up of the goal against Juve, it looks as if Freddie is coming from deep and you have to wait for him to arrive. But then you realise he's close to you, and all that time you're just waiting for him to make his move...

Well, that's the thing. You create a certain relationship with players. On the pitch they know what I want to do with the ball, and I know exactly what they are going to do. That's the thing which in my opinion is the beauty of the game: that there can be just one look to each other, or just me controlling the ball and the body language means "come on Freddie, go! GO!" And then he goes, because he understands. There's no shouting, it's just my body language.

And to point would be crass...

Exactly. I'm keeping the ball, meaning, "come on, come on! What are you doing?" And then he's going and I flick it. I had a lot of moments with Freddie like that, and with Marc Overmars. Because you just know from each other. They know: "OK, Dennis is always looking for the pass so I have to go there, I have to do that." And when that works it makes defenders look silly.

Because it can't be defended?

It cannot be defended because he's gone with high pace and the defenders are standing still, all facing forward and when the pass is given it is not offside, not by a mile, and he is controlling the ball five or six yards behind the defenders, so he has plenty of time to do something. And that finish was nice, too. Freddie, eh? Amazing player! Very strong. Very quick. And the things he did! Certain players have a certain style, a certain movement. With him it looked a little sloppy — with respect I say that — but he did it on purpose. He knew exactly what he's doing! He scored a lot of goals like that. People underestimated him. But he never underestimated himself!

Drop Dead

Everyone remembers Dennis's third goal in the hat-trick at Leicester2 that won first, second and third places in the Goal of the Month competition.

The first was good, too...

The one from the corner? Yeah, on the corner before that I saw I had space, so I said to Marc Overmars, "next corner, look for me." So then you just try it. But I always feel anyone can score a goal like that. Well, maybe not anyone, but you can hit it at goal and it goes in. But the third goal is more a technical thing. You have to do a lot of movements to get yourself free, to control the ball, to score that goal.

With the third, the ball comes to you very high. Did you think of heading it?

No, not at all. It starts a little bit before, with the eye contact with David Platt, "I want it there"' You know? David Platt can see the spaces, he can give the ball. Then drop off and go: get yourself a few yards on the defender. Then the ball comes and it starts. For me, the first thing on my mind is controlling the ball. You want to control it in such a way that your second contact you can do something useful with it. So, basically, the ball has to be dead after the contact. Dead. Not a yard further. It has to be, 'boom!' Drop dead! And the second thing is more like, "OK, I've got the ball here and I want to go there." So the second contact must be inside, knowing that the defender will never adapt to that. We are both going one way but of the two of us I'm the only one who knows I want to go somewhere else. I think the second contact is when it is still airborne? Because, yeah, I drop it in the air...

...And then come inside him when it's in the air?

Yes, I think even with my right I take it inside. You'd think I would be using my left but I'm using my right because it comes out quicker. Otherwise, I would have to take another step. So I'm thinking about doing it quickly so I use my right foot and drop it in.

It drops to the ground and you turn your body, open up...

Yes. Because then you're one-on-one with the goalkeeper, and there are other players coming in as well, so your third contact must be a strike on goal. So it has to be right.

Mathematics

At Ajax Dennis was renowned, above all, for the unearthly precision and beauty of his lobs. In England, his World Cup qualifying goal at Wembley in 1993 is the best-remembered from his early period (Dennis diverting an airy pass into the far side of the goal with an almost nonchalant reverse touch). His greatest lob, though, was probably the one in a league game for Ajax against RKC Waalwijk, when he chipped the ball over the goalkeeper's head from an impossible-seeming position amid a crowd on the edge of the area.

What do you remember of that?

People always said of me "but he only scores nice goals, he doesn't score ugly ones". But I gave myself a rule. When I played in Holland, with Ajax, I always tried to lob the goalkeeper. People said, "Oh, you're trying to make a nice goal, a beautiful goal." But I said, "Listen, if the goalie is a little bit off his line, how much space do you have on his left or right? It's not a lot. And how much space do you have above him? There is more. It's a question of mathematics. It's fantastic. You have much more space above. So if you get it right, you can't miss. If you've got that certain confidence and ability, then it's the best solution." So that's why I often did that. You can say it's not really effective. But I say it is. I scored many goals like that. Because the other options weren't on for me, and because I knew I could do it. Like against Waalwijk. At that moment I am on the 18-yard line. We are attacking, so everyone is back. The penalty area is crowded. And where is the goalkeeper? There is no chance for me to shoot directly, so he comes off his line. At this moment, he is looking to be the last man, and he doesn't expect a lob. So a lob is the best, most simple solution. Just try it. I'm not thinking, "I'm going to try to score a beautiful goal." Not at all. I have options. And I am going to try the lob because it seems to me that this is the best option at that moment. The ball is under my feet so I can't really have a good, full swing at it. The only way is to chip. You don't need a lot of space to put your foot through and chip the ball... Of course you need a percentage of luck too. But in the end, if you do that a lot of times and you practise, and you keep working on it, the luck percentage goes down. It becomes more ability than luck.

The Moment a Life Leads up to

Holland v Argentina, World Cup quarter-final, Marseille, 5 July 19983. The 90th minute...

That's my top goal, I think. Also because of everything around it. It's a goal that gets you to the semi-final of the World Cup, a massive stadium, lots of people watching and cheering... My reaction afterwards was very emotional.

You covered your face as if to say, "I can't believe I've just done that!"

I didn't know what else to do! It's funny. Every boy has a dream, "I want to score in the World Cup." Score the winning goal in the final, of course. But in this way... to score a goal like that, in the style of me, you know? The way I score goals, on that stage, in a game that really means something, because that's important to me too. I love good football, nice football but it has to mean something. It has to bring me somewhere. And that's what happened with this goal. At that moment I thought about when I was seven or eight years old, playing football in the house, you know? This is the moment! It's a good feeling.

You're a long way off the ground when the ball comes. For a wide receiver to catch that with his hands would be difficult. You do it with your foot! What were you thinking? How much was planned? How much improvised?

Again, it's a question of creating that little space, eh? So you get to that ball first. You've had the eye contact... Frank [de Boer] knows exactly what he's going to do.

You asked for the pass?

Yeah, yeah. There's contact. You're watching him. He's looking at you. You know his body language. He's going to give the ball. So then: full sprint away. I've got my five, six yards away from the defender. The ball is coming over my shoulder. I know where it's going. But you know as well that you are running in a straight line, and that's the line you want to take to go to the goal, the line where you have a chance of scoring. If you go a little bit wider it's gone. The ball is coming here, and you have two options. One: let it bounce and control it on the floor. That will be easier, but by then you are at the corner flag. So you have to jump up to meet the ball and at the same time control the ball. Control it dead. And again, like the Leicester one, you have to take it inside because the defender is storming that way. He's running with you and as soon as the ball changes direction, and you change direction as well, then he's gone, which gives you an open chance. Well, it's a little bit on the side but it gives you a chance to shoot.

It's an astonishing piece of control. How did you manage it?

We talked about balance on the ground. This was balance as well, but you have to be in the air. You've got to be as still as possible, as if you are standing still... but in the air, and controlling the ball. If you've got a lot of movement, and try to control with the inside of the foot, then the ball could go towards the defender. So you want to keep it on the top of your foot. That gives you the best chance, and the best chance of controlling it. I'm not worrying about the angle of my foot because that's something you do all the time. I know I can control almost any ball that comes to me. But I want to be very stable. I didn't realise how high in the air I was. But you know you want that ball in that position. Not there but here. So you have to jump up to meet the ball."

How much looking back were you doing while the ball was on its way to you?

You first look back when the ball comes, of course. But there wasn't much wind, so I'm looking forward, to keep sprinting, to meet the ball. You know the line, and at the last moment you think, "OK now I have to jump". And when I'm in the air it's going to meet my foot. There's a little bit of calculation at that moment. But it's experience.

And after you had landed it?

You just think: that's step one. You want to get the whole moment, the whole sequence. It's three touches. Everything can still go wrong at that moment, so you are concentrating on doing it step by step. But you don't know the steps. You can only do the second step if the first step is right. If the ball shoots on a little bit further, then you have to adjust again.

So you've killed the dropping ball, you touch it inside to get rid of Roberto Ayala [the defender] and make a better angle, and you don't take the shot with your left foot but with the outside of right.

Yes, because I feel more confident with that at that time. It's in the middle of my feet and I have the confidence, and it's not the right angle to take it as well with the left, because that's a different kick. So I choose to take it with my right — ideally, the outside of the right — and aim it for the far post, then let it turn in...

It even curves.

That's what I wanted. Take it away from the goalkeeper and let it come in.

Did it cross your mind that he might save it?

No. Because when you're in that moment ... You know, sometimes you have these moments where you think, "This cannot go wrong! No way!"

It's a spiritual moment?

Yeah. What can you compare it to? Different sports? Like running the hundred metres and you know this is going to be a good time? But you're in that moment. That's the feeling. After the first two touches... that moment! You give absolutely everything in that movement. It's like your life has led up to this moment.