Here’s Joel Golby on what made Thierry Henry so, so, so good for so long. He did things that no one could understand…
Here he is, look, he’s back, he’s 34 and he’s tired and he’s back, he’s gnarly now, somehow, like a scar that’s been healed over too many times, he was once 22 and had a sweet little fuzz of moustache and a leather-thong necklace (it was 1999, remember, we will give the kid a break) and now here he is, all man, Thierry Henry, the number’s wrong but the slouch just the same. Thierry Henry is a human shrug of a man. Thierry Henry is to visible effort what Hugh Hefner was to monogamy. Thierry Henry is wearing #12 because Theo Walcott—stood next to him wearing his #14 like a schoolboy wearing his Arsenal kit to school on non-uniform day—because Theo Walcott is wearing his number in holy deference to him. Thierry Henry coming on in the 67th minute to replace Marouane Chamakh. Can you imagine such a thing? Can you imagine such an insult? If you want a timeline of the post-Emirates decline of Arsenal FC, there it is, right there: Chamakh off, and Henry on. And then, of course, obviously it happens, it happens like it always does: Alex Song slips a pass through, and Thierry is there, lingering insouciantly in the box; and he does that thing, like he always does, where he just sort of slouches back, away from the ball but around it; and then he darts it across the goal, like he always does, just out of reach of the goalkeeper, that same goal he scored 228 times; and then he chugs up the touchline, pissing sweat, like a steam engine trying carefully not to explode, and everything is on fire, The Emirates is on fire, The Emirates is roaring, and Thierry is back, he’s back, he’s back in red and white like he was always meant to be, and here’s me—I am on my knees on the squidgy floor of an otherwise quiet Archway pub, and I have bypassed delirium and joy, and I am just crying, fully crying among the chips-and-fags funk of a soiled pub carpet, crying wet tears onto myself. Oh Titi, Titi. No one makes me feel like you do.
It just seemed right, Thierry Henry to Arsenal. It just seemed predestined. He came through at Monaco under Wenger, tested as a raw 17-year-old amid a forward line injury crisis, and there he sort of bobbed in and around the first team—a skinny-legged winger with electric pace who knew the size of the goal like no other player alive. I would argue that nobody knows the exact height of the regulation crossbar like Thierry Henry, who frequently battered goals a perfect inch below it when a tap-in would do; the same goes for the far post, and the near one too, which he always knew the exact extreme lengths of when pasting a ball across a goalkeeper, or squeezing it in at his near side (nobody ever told Thierry Henry that you could aim for the centre of the goal if you wanted to), spending two seasons under Tigana after Wenger got binned, getting game time but nobody seemingly convinced at how special what they had really was. And then there was an aborted Real Madrid transfer that got all fucked up by his dad, and then somehow he broke into the France 98 squad, and here’s Titi, now: 20 years old, World Cup winner, itching to get on with the serious business of being the best in the world, revving on the starting grid of the principality. A half season at Juve ended up being a false dawn (turns out ‘elegant-if-unpolished French wing play’ and ‘an ancient formation formed to get the best out of Alessandro Del Piero and Alessandro Del Piero alone’ were two repelling magnetic forces, who knew), and then Wenger, in North London by now, swooped: £10 million of the Anelka–Madrid money, and another Frenchman in Highbury. And then he didn’t score for fucking ages.
The first great lie of Thierry Henry was that he never tried. He tried, relentlessly, he just made sure to make it look like he never did: he tried in private after-training shuttle runs with Claude Puel at Monaco, and he tried his heart out to make that France squad, and he tried at Juventus even though it wasn’t happening, and he tried so hard at Arsenal in those first eight games before the first goal came (he did not try at headering the ball) (he did not try at defending it), and then Tony Adams slid a pass a quarter-length of the pitch to him and he held off Marco Almeida with his slender French arse and he pushed the ball in front of him just a foot or two and swung it away from him into the absolute top corner and then instinct kicked in and oh, ok, here we go. Henry scored 26 in his first season, and fewer the year that followed but more with that ‘what, me?’ swagger about him, and as Arsenal transitioned the tired knackered remains of that back five out and started to replace the 1998 double team piece-by-piece Thierry underpinned it, transitioning, gaining speed like a snowball down a hill, and then the 2001 season came and you couldn’t fucking touch him. You couldn’t even get near him.
The second great lie of Thierry Henry was that he was arrogant. Non. It’s arguable actually that Thierry Henry is the world’s first unarrogant man: his ego tracked exactly in line with how good he was on the pitch at the time. Don’t you understand? That shrug he did against Leeds, 2002 (Thierry scored a point-blank volley from a Ljungberg cross, then just turned away from the goal, two half fists clenched up against his shoulders, lightly bopping, like a cool dad walking across a wedding dancefloor carrying a pack of nuts in his mouth) — it was complete justification for the stone-dead touch, the swirl-and-movement, the way he could surge and pulsate and then stop, that unerring ability he had to score with his back to the goal. For a three-year period he was absolutely untouchable—in the league and in the world—and every time he scored, which was with frenetic regularity for three seasons straight—he knew that for a second his talents had exactly matched up with his ability, and he turned to the cameras, and: ehh. Thierry wasn’t arrogant. Every shrug was an exact physical reflection of his ability with the ball at the time.
It’s hard to remember now he’s essentially a frustrated Neighbourhood Watch leader picking up dog shit in a big jacket and being contractually nutmegged by Alexis Sánchez, but Arsène Wenger was once the best manager in the world, and Henry was his masterstroke. He knew the player from Monaco, of course, but Henry was a youth product when Wenger left and didn’t register in his initial poach-from-the-old-club transfer window of 1997–98 that saw Wenger lure Emmanuel Petit, Gilles Grimandi and Christopher Wreh over to North London. Two years later, when he lost Anelka to Real Madrid, Wenger needed a marquee replacement, but Henry—a faltering, raw Juventus winger, a £10 million risk—wasn’t seen by anyone as the answer. But then Wenger whispered in his ear: have you considered playing CF instead of LW. And Henry nodded and said something French like: ah. And suddenly everything clicked into place, and he scored more goals than anyone in Arsenal history, and France international history, too.
Only the very best players are able to switch from the wing to a striker (see: Walcott, T.): Messi did it, arguably Ronaldo did it but he still lurches to one side of a central striker, Firmino sort of did it but he was more of a CAM anyway, Griezmann maybe, Aubameyang possibly. You’d think ‘running really quickly in the opposition half’ and ‘shooting at the goal’ would be a transferable skill across the slim void between winger and striker, but in reality it’s a completely different game, with an entirely different skillset, a valley that for so many players is just a leap too far. Henry switching inside and becoming the greatest striker in the world was meant to be a prototype, a blueprint for things to come, but in reality only Titi could do it: only he had the raw skill, the intuition, the alertness, that way of reading every aspect of the game in a split second, the back-to-goal oh-fuck-he’s-done-it-again braggadocio, only he had the necessary collection of skills to pull it off. He didn’t defend for fucking shit, no, but then why would you expect the best striker in the world to track back and huff around with Philippe Senderos? You wouldn’t do the school run in a Bentley, would you?
You don’t get to understand Thierry Henry, is the thing. Even watching him move—and waltz, and turn and pulse forward, then trap it again, hold the ball for a second, no backlift, goal—even watching Thierry, you couldn’t quite understand him, how he did what he did, even watching it again in slow motion. Take the Charlton goal, you know the one: Thierry, back to goal, defender just monstering him, climbing him like a tree, that sharp angle he liked but—crucially—back still to goal. and then he pokes out one long, perfect Thierry-leg and, somehow, not even a clean back-heel but a sort of clacking form of contact, vroosh: the goalkeeper, rushed forward and on his arse; the defender, baffled, still thinking he could make the tackle; the ball, nestled in the net, Thierry wheeling away towards the corner flag. Watch it again, and again and again, and again, and tell me how he did that. You can watch it with your own eyes and see, but you can’t explain how. Thierry didn’t celebrate goals in the same way you or I would—goals became so routine to him that expressing joy at their happening, again, would be passé—and was a verbose interviewee who very carefully gave absolutely nothing away about his interior life. You don’t know if he was a killer or a lover. Warm or cold. You could watch the man play football for 90 minutes and not know how he made the moves he made. You could listen to him shrug through an interview for an hour and not learn anything about him. You don’t get to understand Thierry. He wants it this way.
There are certain physical tropes to footballers, folders and boxes we can fit most of them in: Rooney as the barrel-of-explosives all-conquering attacking force; Ronaldo a sort of arch mega-athlete, half-robot half-man, determined to stride the ball into the goal if nothing else; Batistuta and Shearer were both entirely complete forwards, dangerous from every possible angle it came to them; Vieri was a wrecking ball; Messi an elf-like wizard; Bergkamp could slow down time. (This is not just confined to elite level players: Grant Holt was a rectangle-shaped journeyman; Joey Barton a glowering human tackle; Pepe Reina was yer classic spring-loaded tiny goalkeeper). Henry defied categorisations: he was an athlete, of course, but only in as much as his body was honed to carry out the whims of his mind (think of him less like a footballer and more of a physics professor in the body of a hurdler). Beyond his dash-across-the-box, slice-it-across-the-keeper angled shot, he didn’t really have a ‘go to’ goal, the one he scored again and again and again: he would ping perfect top corner free kicks, or curl a shot perfectly from the outside of the box and past a static keeper while six or seven defenders surged in, or he would pirouette and dribble past an entire team, too close to the goalkeeper, surely, he’s overdone it, he’s gone too fa— ah, no, goal. The three peak seasons that ended with The Invincibles he was statistically manic: 120 goals in 189 games for Arsenal and France, in from everywhere, goal after goal after goal, after goal; the spirit of an artist in the body of a pure goal scorer.
It’s not really about the goals, though. It never was. Thierry was a vibe. As he whirred his way up to his peak, Henry cut around London with the air of a young prince, a near golden shine around his head at all times. Along with an untouchable Vieira, for a while he was Arsenal: one of two anchors who underpinned the transition from chop-and-pop ‘90s Arsenal to meat-and-blood Invincibles Arsenal to kiss-the-turf-as-Highbury-roars-one-last-time Arsenal, and there’s no way he could have done that without that sheer aura he was exuding at the time. A niche, French, chicken and egg scenario: did the confidence come with the goals or did the goals come with the confidence? It doesn’t matter: the Real Madrid goal, that Real Madrid goal, was the pinnacle of it all — Thierry had no business muscling one defender off the ball, let alone splitting his way through two, let alone drifting too far left of the goal with a fourth defender looming in, let alone making that ground up in the time he did, and then: the sheer arrogance to shoot, from there, at that sliced angle, across the face of the best goalkeeper in the world at the time, nestling it in the bottom corner, silencing the Bernabéu. No footballer has ascended from a collection of limbs and a Nike kit into a pure vibe before. Thierry essentially turned into vapour the second that shot hit the net. And here’s me, again, on my knees, like that statue outside Highbury. Here’s me, just yelling at the majesty of watching a footballer at his peak ripple around in that red and white Dreamcast shirt. The best to ever do it, the best there ever was. Oh Titi, Titi. No one makes me feel like you do.
Images: Well Offside.
Find Joel on Twitter here.This originally appeared in Issue 13, which you can’t get any more. But if you like Arsenal players, you’re in luck, because Hector Bellerin is on the cover of our latest issue, which you can buy here.