There are few players in the history of England’s top tier who have a greater claim as the Premier League’s finest than Thierry Henry, the forward establishing himself as arguably the greatest player the division has seen during a record-breaking career at Arsenal.
Henry won a record four Premier League Golden Boots and two league titles under the guidance of compatriot Arsene Wenger in north London, but perhaps the Frenchman’s most iconic individual campaign came during a season in which he won neither.
We’ve decided to revisit the performances of Henry throughout the 2002/03 campaign, one which remains one of the great individual seasons in Premier League history.
Henry had evolved from promising winger into one of the league’s leading centre-forwards during three seasons in north London, winning a domestic double and first Golden Boot under Wenger the previous season.
He returned following a disappointing World Cup with France in Japan and South Korea that saw the holders surprisingly eliminated at the group stage, where he would quickly establish himself as the best player in English football.
Arsenal and Henry faced serious competition from Manchester United and the goal-obsessed Ruud van Nistelrooy, the Dutchman who was named as the previous season’s PFA Player of the Year despite finishing a goal behind Henry in the race for the Golden Boot.
Henry, however, was not cut from the same cloth as Van Nistelrooy or even Premier League contemporaries Michael Owen and Alan Shearer, the Arsenal forward doing much of his best work outside of the penalty area, the goals flowing because of an effortless ability to create chances rather than an unrelenting desire to finish them.
He opened his account for the season on the opening day with a free-kick against newly-promoted Birmingham at Highbury, before scoring four times in his first six appearances, including a stunning individual effort at West Ham as the Gunners came from two goals down to draw at Upton Park.
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Premier League defences simply couldn’t cope with him, and in Wenger he had a manager willing to give his star man free reign of any pitch, allowing Henry to drift into the areas he felt he could do the most damage.
Much of the time that involved drifting back towards his former position on the left-flank, working brilliantly in tandem with Robert Pires and Ashley Cole to create overloads when in possession.
Henry was happy to drop deep, float to the flanks and occupy defenders, often leading to space in behind for his teammates for whom he was happy to oblige the final pass.
Rarely has a great goalscorer acted as selflessly in the interests of the team.
As November arrived Arsenal were top of the division and Henry seemingly in unstoppable form, netting one of the Premier League’s great individual goals against Tottenham in the north London derby and a sensational Champions League hat-trick at Roma.
Henry’s treble at the Stadio Olimpico encapsulated the Frenchman at his very best, the first a trademark passed finish into the far corner from the inside left channel, before a smartly taken left-footed finish and an inch-perfect free-kick to claim the match ball.
He was once again amongst the leading scorers in the division alongside Van Nistelrooy, whilst there was also outside challenges for the Golden Boot from Southampton’s James Beattie and Leeds’ Mark Viduka.
The narrative of Henry’s season, however, was in his ability to create as much as it was to score.
That aforementioned solo goal at Tottenham was accompanied by the most unselfish of assists for Freddie Ljungberg, whilst his excellence from set-pieces saw him become Arsenal’s chief taker for both free-kicks and corners.
Following a thrilling New Years’ Day win over Chelsea at Highbury, the forward’s league tally stood at 12 goals and seven assists, though his record would only improve despite the Gunners’ wobbles in the title race.
Two games later there was a perfect hat-trick against London rivals West Ham before a brilliant solo destruction of Manchester City, Henry scoring a sensational effort and providing assists for both Robert Pires and Sol Campbell in a 5-1 victory at Maine Road.
Late April brought a titanic clash with title rivals Manchester United at Highbury and it was once again left to the Gunners’ talisman to settle the result, Henry scoring twice in a 2-2 draw against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side who had remained unbeaten since defeat to Middlesbrough on Boxing Day.
The imperious form of Ferguson’s side had seen United overhaul an eight-point deficit to move top of the division and backed by the goals of Van Nistelrooy – the forward scoring in each of the final eight games of the season – it would be a position they would not relinquish.
Defeat to relegation-threatened Leeds all but ended the Gunners’ hopes of team success, but despite his opportunity to seal consecutive Golden Boots Henry remained true to himself as a player focused solely on the team.
The final two fixtures of the season saw Arsenal thrash Southampton 6-1 at Highbury before a comfortable 4-0 victory at Sunderland, two fixtures which saw the Frenchman score just once and end the season with 24 goals.
Far from out of form, however, Henry was a provider throughout both clashes, laying on goals for both Robert Pires and Jermaine Pennant who both helped themselves to hat-tricks against the Saints, before an incredible display of creativity on Wearside.
Henry opened the scoring before laying on three assists for teammate Ljungberg, becoming the first player in Premier League history to reach 20 assists in a single campaign – a record which still stands today.
Henry could, quite conceivably, have focussed on himself and a second Golden Boot, but the beauty of the player is his ability to see the bigger picture and willingness to find teammates when better positioned.
Speaking to the Blizzard in 2014, it is a quality he believes it the greatest joy in football:
“To me, the most beautiful thing is making the pass when you are in a position to score yourself. You know you’re good enough to score, but you give the ball. You share. And you see that joy in the eyes of the other guy. You know, he knows, everyone knows.”
Consolation would come in the form of FA Cup success over Southampton at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, whilst Henry’s career-best season was rewarded with a host of individual accolades.
The Frenchman was named as winner of both the PFA Player’s Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year for the first time, voted by his fellow professionals as the finest player in the Premier League.
He later won both accolades for the second successive season after helping the Gunners bounce back with a historic unbeaten campaign the following year, Wenger’s side crowned champions for the second time in three seasons as Henry claimed the Golden Boot with a 30-goal haul.
That season will forever be synonymous with a player regarded as the greatest in Arsenal’s long and illustrious history, but Henry’s greatest individual campaign is one in which he performed as the most complete player in world football.
Thierry Henry in 2002/03, selfless and sensational.