As Thierry Henry’s glittering career draws to its twilight after his spell with the New York Red Bulls, we are finally in position to appreciate the man’s career. One thing is for certain: Henry will go down as one of the greatest to have graced football, and the world of football is better for his advent to the game. As Bob Wilson has stated: “The word great is overused, but in Thierry’s case it is absolutely true.”
Arsenal glory years
The place where Henry really established his greatness and played the best football of his life, was in North London at Arsenal, with one of the greatest football teams in England’s history, and under one of the best managers to walk under the sun. He was symbolic of the spirit of Arsenal and was instrumental in taking the club to new heights. In the 8 years Henry spent in England, he won the league title and the FA Cup twice apiece, and led Arsenal to the final of the Champions League in his penultimate season.
For 2 successive seasons, he won the PFA and FWA Player of the Year awards double, winning the Writers award a third time in 2005-06. Twice he bagged the European Golden Boot, while he won the Premier League award 4 times. For 6 successive seasons, Henry featured in the Premier League team of the year, starting 2000-01.
All in all, he scored 226 goals for the club in all competitions, 174 of them in the Premier League and 42 in the continent. Never did he, apart from an injury-torn last season, average less than 20 goals a season, a goal return most strikers would kill to have.
But then, to call Henry a striker is an understatement of a magnitude comparable to saying Federer is a handy tennis player. Henry is a Premier League legend and possibly its greatest player not just for what he did on the field, but for the way he did it, making the game look like an art. It is a safe statement to make that Dennis Bergkamp and Henry combined to form the most beautiful pair of strikers in modern football, and possibly in the history of the game.
There were doubts about it though. When Henry arrived at Arsenal, he had by the age of 21, made his international debut, become a regular starter and had featured in France’s World Cup-winning squad, but as a winger. He believed himself to be a winger, and he didn’t make an overnight transition to the role of striker taking 8 games to open his account.
When he did, though, it was emphatic enough to put to bed any perceptions of incompetence which had risen in that goal drought. Henry went on to score 26 goals in all competitions during his first season, proof that his transition from pacy winger to powerful striker had been completed.
He is one of the fastest footballers in the history of the game, and with his well-built, powerful frame, Henry stood up to the physicality of the league in good stead. If opposition defenders had hoped to put him off his game by fouling him, they were sadly disappointed as Henry simply watched them go to ground when he rang rings around them with his quick, neat footwok. Arsenal were coming off the loss of Nicolas Anelka, but Henry had more than made up for his absence.
In his second season, with the arrival of Pires, Arsenal had a potent, four-pronged goal threat with Pires coming off the left wing and Fredrik Ljungberg off the right alongside Henry and Bergkamp in the middle, who liked to drop deep and help with the buildup play. With the midfield thrust coming from Vieira and Ray Parlour, Arsenal had become a complete side. Henry’s third season finally got him silverware, in the form of the FA Cup and Premier League double.
This wonderful group stuck together for a period of 6 great years in the earlier-2000s, and Gooners have some very fond memories of those times.
Henry the best of his time while in the Premier League
Henry wasn’t completely the old-school, bang-in-the-goals striker too. He was more than happy to pass the ball around, and he collected a number of assists by drifting out wide and playing runners into the box: he has, in fact, set the Premier League record for most assists in a season (20).
In Arsenal’s best years, Henry and Bergkamp were a one-two punch that was virtually unstoppable: they had a telepathic understanding, and when one of the two dropped deep to create, the other would make runs and facilitate the penetration. Henry has been known to call Bergkamp the best player he has ever played with.
What set apart Henry from other great strikers of his time was that he was capable of scoring every single type of goal. Look at his compatriots: Ruud van Nistelrooy was a better poacher, a fox-in-the-box; Andy Cole was a great physical presence who also capitalized from wonderful off-the-ball movement; Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler were about as explosive as footballers could get; Dennis Bergkamp was all about subtlety and technicality, working on maneuvring the ball in the most damaging way to defenders.
Henry combined the best of all these players into one unstoppable package. And this is a fact: no one, not even Cristiano Ronaldo in those mind-boggling last 3 years at United, dominated the Premier League in the same manner or inspired the same fear from opposition defenders. Henry was one level above everyone else.
It wasn’t just the quantity too. Henry was as much a great goalscorer as he was a scorer of great goals. He scored some of the most outrageous goals in English football. Backheels, instinctive half-volleys, 30-yard free kicks, long rangers, solo goals dribbling past 3 or 4 players, on the counter while being tracked by the opposition defender – he scored all sorts, and he finished with aplomb. He perfected the technique of curling the ball into the net, and some of his most memorable goals have been examples of this.
Henry was also a player of the occasion. Some of the best goals he has ever scored were in crunch matches against Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool and in the Champions League against world-class defenders from Real Madrid and Inter Milan.
It is since Henry’s advent that one-dimensional strikers have slowly been phased out of the big clubs. Where Manchester United were once satisfied with Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, now they look to more finished articles like Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, who can play off the last man, score the 30-yarder and provide the cross for the winning goal too.
Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski are but 2 strikers in the post-Henry era in the European scene who can genuinely claim to be able to do everything expected of a well-rounded world-class forward. As written by Chris Bascombe, Henry is the striker who represents the change in what was earlier expected of world-class strikers and what they expect now. And that is the impact that he’s had on the Premier League, in a nutshell.