There are few players who define a generation as adroitly as Thierry Henry. A prodigiously talented footballer, he grew from a young boy living in a tough Parisian suburb to become a legendary footballer. Indeed, although the 1990s offered an educational experience for him, it was undoubtedly the 2000s that saw him grow most of all, in stature and in fame.
Having endured a club career in the mid-90s that had seen him play primarily as a left-winger, whose objective was to set up strikes rather than produce them, Henry wasn’t able to fully express himself. He was simply too far away from goal to be able to capitalise on his innately excellent marksmanship skills; too uninvolved where it mattered.
Having joined Juventus in 1999 as a World Cup winner, it was largely expected that he would spearhead a Bianconeri rejuvenation in Serie A, but the move didn’t turn out as expected and befell an uninspired few months in Turin. An £11m move to Arsenal, a few months prior to the turn of the millennium, provided him with the chance to finally blossom into the mesmerising footballer we’ve all come to regard and remember him as.
Arsène Wenger’s ingenious decision to convert Henry from an out-and-out left-winger into a striker – a forward who often drifted to the left of the 18-yard box, more specifically – sparked the beginning of a beautiful romance experienced throughout the north side of London. Ultimately, it kick-started what would turn out to be one of the most successful and thrilling careers the beautiful game has ever seen.
If his time at Monaco and Juventus had been charted with peaks and troughs, his arrival at Arsenal would ultimately signal a steady rise in influence and eye-catching performances. Many commentators, pundits and fans alike have recounted Henry’s career with awe and enduring admiration, but words often seem hollow in the face of unrivalled ability and historic genius. Statistics and facts, while less hyperbolic, tell the true tale of the sort of player that Henry truly was.
At Arsenal he won six major honours, as well as helping the Gunners finish as runners-up in the 2006 Champions League final. In terms English league appearances, Henry netted 175 goals in 258 appearances, scoring over 220 goals – 228 including his second spell in the late 2000s – across all competitions during his time there. In the process, he won the hearts of the fans with his net-rattling exploits, produced some swashbuckling individual displays, and spearheaded undoubtedly the greatest squad of footballers Arsenal fans have been fortunate enough to call their own.
The role Henry played in the 2003/04 Invincibles league campaign was inimitable as he scored 30 goals, putting the finishing touch to many sweeping, technical, skilful moves along the way. He became the league’s top scorer for the season as well as cementing his status as a veritable club legend, guaranteeing that he deserved to be included in every debate querying the greatest players on the planet. Long before that, though, he had been recognised as an enigmatic footballer with regular flashes of genius illuminating pitches up and down the Premier League circuit.
Who could forget the goal he scored against Watford in April 2000? Picking the ball up ten yards inside the opposition half, he glided with purpose and poise before crafting an elegant angle to stroke the ball into the bottom right-hand corner from 16 yards out.
Then, of course, there is the wondergoal he netted against Manchester United six months later. Rifling the ball beyond Fabien Barthez, after setting it up wonderfully with a deft and magical flick, it was strikes such as this one that singled Henry out as a uniquely-talented talisman long before a Premier League medal had even been draped around his neck, and long before anyone had even considered him a contender for the Ballon d’Or. That would come soon enough.
In 2002 he scored yet another peach of a goal, this time against West Ham, instigating a comeback victory with a 30-yard strike. More amazing strikes, against Liverpool in 2004 and Blackburn in 2007, underlined his propensity for converting one-of-a-kind goals. All throughout his time under Wenger at Arsenal, Henry produced remarkably stylish and innovative football, but he regularly added to that exotic swagger by scoring a lot of very good goals.
His role in the Gunners’ run to the 2006 Champions League final was instrumental as he netted five times in the campaign, and although his side ultimately came up short against Barcelona, the brilliance of Henry had been clear for all to see. Indeed, he brought these traits with him when he ultimately departed north London to team up with Pep Guardiola in Catalonia.
Henry’s time at Barcelona was in some ways superior to the legacy that he had forged at Arsenal. Although a much shorter spell – three seasons – the achievements that he helped the Catalan team earn have won them nigh on universal acclaim as one of the most admired and esteemed teams of the last 25 years.
The intricate play, tactical awareness, and technical prowess that Barcelona displayed throughout Henry’s time at the club were largely due to Guardiola’s masterminding from the sidelines. However, a large portion of the success from that era was owing to the fact that the players knew how to read games and could understand each other’s flaws and strengths in real-time.
Henry converted 49 goals during his time at Barcelona, making 121 appearances in all, helping them to seven titles, the highlight of which was undoubtedly the historic treble of LaLiga, Copa del Rey and Champions League that provided the zenith of almost every one of their individual careers. Along the way, he formed an unstoppably tenacious trident alongside Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi.
At Barcelona, Arsenal and perhaps less so with the France national team, throughout the 2000s, Henry ensured that his early career uncertainty would be overwhelmingly overshadowed by a combination of hard work, innate talent, and a desire to constantly improve that had been instilled in him since his formative days at Clairefontaine.
A phenomenal footballer, he showed the Premier League that, for French imports, there was life after the departure of Le Roi – Eric Cantona. Henry proved that he would be remembered as one of the greatest non-English footballers to play in the country’s top flight. He also proved that even for his markers and fans of rival clubs, there wasn’t much defence against the Henry effect; he had a footballing va-va-voom that was difficult to counter – and doubly difficult not to admire or even fawn over.
At Barcelona, domestically and in Europe, he managed to perform at incredible levels, while creating assists and rattling the back of the net with astounding regularity. He also slotted seamlessly into a side that demanded a great deal from its players, both in terms of honours and calibre of performance.
Overall, the 2000s were pivotal in the way Thierry Henry made his mark on the history of the game and, despite not earning a Ballon d’Or, many widely consider him to be an outrageous talent, as good as any on his day, whose contributions to the sport have rightfully earned him regular mentions in the same breath as those who did take home the coveted individual award.
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90