Thierry Henry is undoubtedly Arsene Wenger’s greatest ever masterpiece. Arsenal have lost their way of late, and Wenger isn’t moving with the times as perhaps he should, but once upon a time he had a team packed with everything desirable for success, and a player who epitomised that better than anyone.
Around the turn of the century, the Gunners were an unstoppable force. They won two Premier League titles after the year 2000, the second of which, in 2004, without losing a league game; combining steely determination and dogged fighting spirit with a beautiful style of play which drew similarities with the finest art to be found in the Louvre. Henry fits in with that metaphor, as a Parisian, and he was the living embodiment of Wenger’s ideas, carrying them to the top with such grace, and at times, ease.
Past generations of football players, before both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi hit top gear, have a rough deal. The records both continue to break on an annual basis look like putting the achievements of the likes of Henry to shame, but not many, if any at all, have come close to the Frenchman in the Premier League. Great players are not at a shortage in this country, but no one made playing at the top level look quite as effortless as he did at his Gunners best, almost walking through defences to score goal after goal, lighting up Highbury week after week.
What made that team, and Henry, so good was watching them develop. It was peak Wenger, whose ideas were so innovative and refreshing, that created such a prolific footballing monster. He didn’t just score goals, netting 175, the most of any foreign player in English top-flight, between 1999 and 2007, but he created too. Mesut Ôzil, Arsenal’s main protagonist these days, looks likely to go on and overtake him this season, but Henry’s assists haul of 20 in 2002/03 remains the record for the most in a single campaign.
The move to North London was the catalyst for his astronomical rise to the top and, especially without the domination of the Ronaldo/Messi axis to contend with, it is a crime he was never given one of world football’s most coveted individual awards.
It is something of a myth, though, that Wenger unearthed a hidden gem when he bought Henry from Juventus in ’99. By then, he had played in the Champions League for both Monaco. where he proved to be one of Ligue 1’s best youngsters after negotiating the fabled Clairefontaine youth academy. Most crucially, a year prior he became a World Champion, and added the European crown two years after that, all before he really began to command the upmost respect in England.
At Juve, alongside his World Cup winning team-mates Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps, and in a country where many others in that successful France side thrived, a young Henry floundered. Although he burst onto the scene with key goals at that tournament, and had done pretty well at Monaco, his goalscoring was never strong enough and he was mainly utilised as a winger in Serie A. It was then that Wenger, who worked with him at the Stade Louis II, sensed the opportunity to revive, rather than create, him.
Few players can profess to having such big impacts on the most successful eras of three different teams. To add to his joys with Les Bleus and Arsenal, where he became a considerable presence both on and off the pitch, captaining them after Patrick Vieira’s 2005 exit, he played his part for arguably the greatest club team ever at FC Barcelona.
When he moved to Camp Nou, just two years after Vieira’s departure and 12 months on from Barça’s Champions League final victory over Arsenal in the Stade de France, he was no longer king. Henry had to learn to blend in, not that it wasn’t part of the job alongside Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff and Dennis Bergkamp before, but as he even admitted, playing for the Blaugrana is like learning a new sport. Finishing as top scorer in his first season didn’t tell the whole story. In truth, he struggled, with injuries and the negativity around the club in Frank Rijkaard’s final, chaotic season in charge.
Playing through the middle was no longer an option, but he fared better out wide when Pep Guardiola solved the striking equation in his debut, treble winning campaign. Henry thrived alongside Messi and Samuel Eto’o, particularly in the 2-6 Clasico victory at the Santiago Bernabeu against Real Madrid, when Guardiola’s now trademark philosophy was executed with the most damning expertise.
Henry had grown from a talented Frenchman, to not only one of the best footballers on the planet, but one of the most famous faces too. His impact on MLS when at New York Red Bulls helped the league and American game in general develop. The biggest compliment that can be paid to him is the struggle to pinpoint a highlight in a long and spectacular career.