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Noughties Nines: Thierry Henry – Premier League King

Thierry Henry was not your conventional number nine. So much so, he felt his rightful domain was away from the penalty area, roaming around the pitch and ripping up the blueprint of what a centre-forward was supposed to be.

Henry had initially been a reluctant centre-forward. His early club career had seen the Frenchman feature from the flanks, a position his coaches first felt best utilised the pace that would leave defenders for dead across the following decade.

It was AS Monaco who first spotted the talent of Henry, a kid of Antillean heritage seeking an escape from the tough Parisian neighbourhood in which he was raised. Such was his promise, he was inducted into the Clairefontaine academy for French football’s brightest prospects, a talent factory that has produced professionals including Nicolas Anelka, William Gallas and Kylian Mbappe, among others.

 

Henry’s introduction to the Monaco side was far from explosive, but a breakthrough season saw him named as Ligue 1’s Young Player of the Year in 1996/97 as Monaco were crowned champions.

The following season saw Henry make his mark on Europe, as Monaco upset the odds to reach the Champions League semi-finals. Though an infrequent goalscorer domestically, Henry found form in continental competition with seven goals from nine games during the club’s run to the last four.

A first French cap followed, as did inclusion in Les Bleus’ squad for a home World Cup in 1998.

Still just 20, Henry was the second-youngest member of the French squad at the finals, with only Monaco teammate David Trezeguet, by less than two months, his junior.

Henry, however, proved his worth.

He ended the tournament as France’s leading scorer with three goals, as Aimé Jacquet’s side were crowned world champions for the first time. Though Henry did not appear in the final win over Brazil at the Stade de France, he had played a prominent part in their path to the decider, with group stage goals against South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

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With a World Cup winner’s medal still draping from his neck, Henry appeared ready for the next step. Six months into the following campaign, that move materialised. Juventus agreed a deal to sign Henry for a fee of £10.5m, but his time in Turin would be famously unhappy.

Despite the presence of France teammates Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps in the Juventus camp, the move was a failure.

Frustrated at his role, which included spells at wing-back and heavy defensive duties, Henry failed to make the desired impact and the Old Lady was soon prepared to cut her losses.

Arsenal came calling and signed Henry in a then-club record £11m deal. His former mentor at Monaco, Arsene Wenger, had taken charge of the north Londoners and sought a reunion with – and the chance to revive – the frustrated French forward.

It was Wenger who first advocated the positional change that would transform Henry from inconsistent winger to one of the greatest goalscorers of his generation.

“I was quick. I had to have 10 chances to convert one into a goal – but at the same time, I kept creating these chances,” Henry recalled on his transition to Blizzard.

“Then I told myself: “You won’t have these chances all the time. You must stick them into the net.” Then, to avoid over-thinking in front of the keeper you work on your finishing, so that it all becomes automatic, so that you don’t think anymore. I went through session after session. I wasn’t born with a gift for goals.”

At Highbury, Henry found his home. In England’s capital a golden era was created, for both Arsenal and the man adorning the club’s number fourteen shirt. Eight games without a goal had seen Wenger’s wisdom questioned, but a sweet strike at Southampton saw the floodgates open.

As the noughties began Henry was beginning the ascent towards his final form. His first season at Arsenal brought 26 goals in all competitions, before success at Euro 2000 made it back-to-back major tournaments with France. He was again Les Bleus’ leading scorer, with his three goals including a crucial equaliser to force extra-time in the semi-final win over Portugal.

Henry has credited George Weah and Ronaldo Nazario for reinventing the centre-forward position, footballers who distorted defences with movements into wide areas, explosive acceleration, and dribbles at breakneck speed. It was a template Thierry followed and, on English shores at least, took to never before seen heights.

Henry, at his best, was a frightening force of expeditious artistry and fleet footwork. Wenger had created a monster, who was without equal in the Premier League. His blistering pace, trademark high socks, and swagger saw him become the defining footballer of a Premier League decade.

Wenger’s successful side had been built on the defensive foundations inherited from George Graham, before adding the powerful Patrick Vieira to the heart of the side and Robert Pires’ guile to the genius of Dennis Bergkamp. It was Henry, however, who lifted the side to another stratosphere.

Henry was the peerless propulsion behind Arsenal’s metamorphosis from talented team to title-winning force, as the Gunners were crowned champions twice in three seasons. The first of those saw Henry lead the league for goals, as Arsenal rattled off a record 13 consecutive wins, and ended the season as double winners.

Despite FA Cup success, the season sandwiched between Arsenal’s two titles was of collective disappointment, but for Henry it was the campaign in which he became arguably the world’s best. For Henry, it had never been about goals and the selflessness in which he led the Arsenal line resulted in a spectacular 2002/03 season. He became the first Premier League player to end a league campaign with 20+ goals and 20+ assists, with the latter mark a record still to be beaten.

The following campaign was the season which etched Arsenal, and Henry, into history. He returned 30 league goals – the best haul of his career – as the Gunners were crowned Premier League champions without losing a game. Each of the club’s Invincibles will never be forgotten, but it is Henry who was truly inimitable during that triumph, the best player in perhaps the best team the Premier League has witnessed.

Henry, on occasion, was out of this world.

A virtuoso performance saw Henry torment Inter Milan during a famous 5-1 win at the San Siro in the Champions League, while his hat-trick turned defeat into victory against Liverpool and preserved Arsenal’s unbeaten record.

Henry was the showman of a team who specialised in spellbinding football. His combinations with Ashley Cole and Pires were at times telepathic and tormented opposition teams. While in Bergkamp, Henry had the perfect visionary to find his runs.

Such was Henry’s brilliance, it felt inevitable when Ian Wright’s club goal record was eventually beaten with a Champions League strike at Sparta Prague. Henry had made a habit of producing game-altering moments, goals which induced disbelief and for which superlatives were soon spent.

No montage of Premier League moments is complete without a cameo from Henry, with fans of that era – the Henry era – each having their own personal favourite.

From that flick and volley to bamboozle Fabien Barthez against Manchester United, to stunning solo goals against Spurs and Liverpool, and a brilliant back-heel against Charlton at Highbury, Henry was capable of goalscoring genius.

Henry was instrumental in Arsenal’s run to the Champions League final in 2006, but ultimately brought the curtain down on his career with the club still in search of elusive European success.

Barcelona secured a deal to sign the French forward, where he became part of the Spanish side’s all-conquering team.

Alongside Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o, the trio combined for more than a century of goals as the Catalans claimed a La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble under Pep Guardiola in 2008/09. Henry was no longer the Premier League phenomenon of his pomp, but at 31 remained a formidable forward threat and produced 26 goals and 10 assists from the left wing.

Major League Soccer was the next challenge for Henry, where even in the closing stages of his career he still proved to be a cut above the competition. A return of 52 goals in 135 appearances for New York Red Bulls justified his arrival as a marquee signing for the States.

A short-term loan to Arsenal punctuated his time in America, where last-gasp winners against Leeds and Sunderland added two final memories for Arsenal fans to cherish.

It was the final farewell from a footballer who had stretched the realm of possibilities in Arsenal minds at his peak. Wreathed in red in his Highbury home, the imagery of Henry in full flight is among the Premier League’s most iconic.

Read – Iconic Performances: Thierry Henry’s irresistible display at Inter

Read more – Five of the best: Thierry Henry goals


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