There are very few players who have made an impact like that of Thierry Henry in recent times. The Frenchman has scored oodles of goals for Arsenal and produced performances that were touching on the legendary, but in many ways the great man’s legacy lies not just in the way he played the game, but also in the way he carried himself throughout his career.
In December 2014, Henry called time on a career that saw him still finding the net at the age of 37. He scored goals for Monaco, Juventus, Barcelona and New York Red Bulls, but it has to be said that his most impressive performances came in an Arsenal shirt. There were times when it was simply impossible to defend against him.
Henry scored a staggering 175 Premier League goals in just 258 appearances, a strike rate that deserves closer inspection. Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Andy Cole have scored a similar number, but have only managed to do so in far more games. Rooney, for example, has played in more than 110 games than the great Thierry Daniel Henry.
When the Juventus winger, as he was then, signed for the Gunners in 1999, few people could have predicted a future so golden, so successful and so trophy-laden as that which followed. Thanks to days spent working together at Monaco, however, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger knew all about the potential of the man with a silky touch and a lightning change of pace.
In many ways, Henry’s success at Arsenal was down to a number of partnerships which were created. He had a telepathic understating with Robert Pires, for example, with whom he created and scored some memorable goals. His style of play suited the darting runs of Freddie Ljungberg, too, which helped to win a number of important games.
In Dennis Bergkamp, he found a partner who understood his game, appreciated his skills and complemented his style. Bergkamp’s icy efficiency dovetailed perfectly with Henry’s extravagance, and it was this pairing that helped to turn Arsenal into a side that matched Manchester United in a period when no one else in the Premier League really mattered.
It was Henry’s partnership with Wenger, however, that still stands out. There were times when the bond between them was so close you might have thought they were father and son, such was the mutual understanding and the shared respect between them. Maybe it was the shared nationality, the time spent at Monaco or maybe it was just the desire to play the game in a certain way. Whatever it was, these were heady days for Arsenal fans.
Perhaps the thing which makes Henry a little different from many Premier League greats is the fact that fans of all clubs could appreciate what he brought to the game. Now that he has retired, you might even find Spurs fans who can rhapsodise about the man’s skills, in the same way that Arsenal supporters will one day be more appreciative of what Gareth Bale might achieve. A great player is a great player, irrespective of what colour shirt he wears.
At the end of a long career, there are very few negatives about Henry. A handball in a World Cup qualifier against Ireland is still remembered by many, but equally some would suggest this stands out even more purely because he tended to play the game with honour. The fact that it was Henry who used his hand perhaps makes the crime more of an issue than it might otherwise have been.
Despite playing at the highest level, it’s hard to remember occasions when he was accused of diving, or when he played the game with anything less than 100% commitment. He scored stunning goals against every club in the land, and against some of the giants of European football. A solo strike against Real Madrid on an unforgettable night at the Bernabeu will live in the memory for decades.
In his heyday, he had a turn of pace that was simply too much for almost all defenders, and his finishing was as clinical as it gets. Most supporters will remember a typical trademark finish, in which he opened his body as he approached the goalkeeper from the left, before slotting home in the bottom right-hand corner. There were very few defenders, and hardly any goalkeepers, who knew how to handle him at his best.
The modern game is as slick and as skilful as it’s ever been, but it’s in danger of being spoilt by players who think more about money and less about effort, by directors who think the only way forward is to constantly raid the wallets of the fans and by a governing body that punishes a misdirected tweet more heavily than a blatant dive or a two-footed leg-breaking tackle. It’s good to know there have been a few exceptions, though.
Henry managed to rise above the cynicism of the football industry, and put a smile on the faces of anyone who watched him play. Even if you hated Arsenal at the time, you just had to love the way this likable Frenchman graced the pitch. Supremely fast, beautifully balanced, outrageously skilful and extremely hard-working, he was, and is, something of a one-off. He will be sadly missed.