Thierry Henry’s most obvious asset when he was growing up was pace, something he acknowledges, but what made him great was what he did with that pace. It was a natural advantage he’d been given, but rather than relying on that as others have done, he developed other aspects of his game so that when the pace finally began to leave him, he was still able to contribute.
Speed rarely lasts in football. A study of a Danish side cited in David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene showed that, counter-intuitively, players at the club had fewer fast-twitch muscle fibers than the average male member of the population; those who had been blessed with a high-proportion of fast-twitch fibers, it turned out, had all ended up leaving the game young because of injury – a bizarre sort of reverse evolution.
Yet Henry remained quick well into his 30s. He’s been lucky, he admits, to avoid injury, but he also looked after himself.
“I’ve also had a fairly healthy lifestyle,” he said in a recent interview with The Blizzard. “I’ve never been someone who drank or partied regularly. If we play a 1-v-1 against each other, I have to make you feel that I’m stronger than you are. It’s as simple as that. Lilian Thuram taught me that. The aim is to be the best you can be. What matters is not to get there, but to want it, to have that desire.”
That desire to be the best, always to get the maximum out of himself, is the key to Henry, to his longevity and two his development as a footballer.
“When I see guys turning up late for training,” he said, “when we train an hour and a half a day… It happened to me once, in Monaco, and it wasn’t my fault. Jean Tigana made it clear to me that it would be the last time this happened and he was right. If you’re late for training when you’re driving a car, you’ll be late in the game when you’ll have to use your legs.”
Punctuality, discipline, the drive to win are all part of it, but there’s also the insistence on technical improvement. When he started out at Monaco, he was quick and not much else.
“I had to have 10 chances to convert one into a goal – but at the same time, I kept creating these chances,” he said in that Blizzard interview. “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. The hardest thing for an attacking player? When he has time to think. So, with Claude Puel, who was then a fitness coach at Monaco, I went through session after session with dummies.”
That work was so effective that Henry, having scored 28 goals in 141 games for Monaco and three in 19 for Juventus, playing largely on the wing, was able to blossom in a central role at Arsenal. He became the club’s all-time record goalscorer with 226 in 369 games in his first spell at the club and a further two in seven in his second. He developed a characteristic finish, opening his body and curving the ball in with his right foot, arcing his shot around the dive of the goalkeeper.
He scored countless brilliant and vital goals, but one, in particular, stands out.
On Good Friday 2004, Arsenal trailed Liverpool 2-1 at halftime. It had failed to win any of its previous four games, going out of the FA Cup to Manchester United and the Champions League to Chelsea. It was still unbeaten in the league but suddenly there was a possibility of collapse. Four minutes into the second half Henry and Fredrik Ljungberg to create a goal for Robert Pires.
A minute later, Henry collected the ball a few yards inside the Liverpool half. He had 10 Liverpool players between him and the goal. He started to run, then suddenly accelerated, going past Didi Hamman. He jinked past Jamie Carragher and, with the rest of the stadium gazing at a red blur, opened his body in trademark style and rolled a finish past Jerzy Dudek. It was a goal that combined stunning speed, explosive power and imagination, and it raided the question that if nine outfielders and a goalkeeper couldn’t stop him, nothing could.
In France, questions are still asked about his role in events at Knysna in 2010, when, despite his prestige and authority, he seemingly did nothing to prevent the insurrection that led to France’s players effectively going on strike during the World Cup. In Ireland, they remember the handball that got France through a qualifying playoff to that World Cup, but no career is entirely without controversy.
There is a curiosity too that the biggest prizes he won – the World Cup and the European Championship with France, and the Champions League with Barcelona, did not come with the club with which he is most associated. But there’s a reason the statue of Henry is at the Emirates.
It was for Arsenal that he played his greatest games, where he earned a rare and protracted adulation. Other than, perhaps, Alan Shearer, no other striker has played so well and for so long in the Premier League, and none has done so with such verve and grace.