Top Tier Rewind: Supercomputer Bergkamp outmanoeuvres Dabizas

2001-02 – Arsenal’s non-flying Dutchman discombobulates the Newcastle defence and scores the best goal in the club’s history...

Dennis Bergkamp often gave the impression of having the mind of a purpose-built footballing computer, a Dutch Deep Blue constantly simulating every possible outcome of a given scenario and churning out solutions in the form of movements, passes or shots. Bergkamp didn’t think – he processed. He even moved jerkily, like some sort of square-jawed high-spec android produced solely to perform complex sporting tasks.

Bergkamp’s goal for Arsenal against Newcastle in March 2002 was his magnum opus, the crowning glory of his career – or at least the career of the software engineer who designed his CPU.

It would be easy to start getting all philosophical about that incredible moment of inspiration. Many already have. But perhaps it’s more emphatic to simply point out that, like all the truly extraordinary goals, this is one that leaves you wondering: “How. the. f*ck. did. he. do. that?”

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Unless they come at a significant time, or in an especially unusual circumstance, the most memorable strikes are rarely long-range scorchers. Hit the ball hard enough often enough and you’ll probably end up getting one eventually – a phenomenon known in scientific circles as the Xhaka Theorem.

But when you pull off a touch or find an angle no-one else in the stadium could visualise let alone execute, that’s when a goal moves into the realm of legend. A genuinely great goal requires imagination, not just power.

Sixteen years after it was scored, the goal still leaves you perplexed. Its uniqueness sets it apart from the thousands of Premier League strikes that preceded and followed it. No-one had done anything quite like it before, and we still haven’t seen anything quite like it since.

Sure, in the interim there have been countless goals involving exceptional ball control prior to a finish – Messi v Nigeria at Russia 2018 springs to mind – but there’s nothing that resembles this. There may never be.

It’s difficult to fathom the kind of skill and quickness of thought displayed by the Arsenal forward that day. When Robert Pires zipped that awkward, bobbly pass to Bergkamp not one person watching expected what was going to happen next. Arguably, the resulting first touch that confounded Newcastle’s Nikos Dabizas is the finest in the history of the league. (Don’t @ me).

How Bergkamp set it up from there is, even on the millionth rewatch, astounding. He shapes his body as if to kill the ball at his feet, but as the Greek defender presses close, twists his torso as if to let it beat him and shoot on the swivel.

Except, instead, he flicks his left boot down on the ball to impart some backspin, knocking it into the only yard of space not occupied by an opponent. Which just happens to be behind his and Dabizas’ backs.

For a millisecond, Dabizas has no idea what’s going on. He goes to shove Bergkamp, who, out of nowhere, is suddenly facing him and, for some incomprehensible reason, running around him without the ball. After what seems like an aeon, the Greek regains sight of the missing sphere, but it’s already too late.

The Nike Geo Merlin has gripped on the St James Park surface and is spinning, inexorably, back into the path of the pirouetting Bergkamp and out of Dabizas’ reach. The Gunners number 10 leans into his marker, waits a few nanoseconds for the ball to roll onto his right foot, contorts his body once again, and slots it into the far corner. It’s a calculated execution, the act of a man in complete mental and physical control.

More important goals have been scored, and flashier ones too, but we’re still awaiting a Premier League goal to rival this for pure, unfettered genius.

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