Thierry Henry’s statue now stands proudly in front of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, but Henry is not the player he was in 2007, when he sealed a sixteen-million-pound move to Barcelona. The mercurial goalscorer renowned for his pace, skill and movement is no more. Henry is a slower and more temperamental version of his former self. While he is still capable of isolated moments of brilliance, his star is waning.
For Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, signing Henry is an opportunity to remind beleaguered supporters of the silver lined days of yore, and to inspire inexperienced players like Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to emulate their illustrious predecessor. Wenger understands that, while Henry’s impact on the field is likely to be negligible, his presence in the dressing room could be priceless.
“He has exceptional talent and is a very intelligent man,” Wenger said on Friday morning. “It can only be positive.”
For Henry himself, though, the benefits of a Premier League swan song are less obvious, perhaps even nonexistent.
Henry has little tournament glory to gain from the two-month loan. He will have returned to New York by the time silverware is handed out, and is not unfulfilled in the trophy department anyway.
The move looks like a pitiable attempt by Henry to polish his own reputation; to prove to the world that, at 34, he remains a Premier League level striker.
With Ryan Giggs still bamboozling defenses at 38, it is easy to see where Henry finds his resolve.
Giggs and Henry belong to overlapping generations; each reached his peak at roughly the same time, and each won titles and scored goals before the turn of the century. Giggs’ longevity, though, is something Henry can only aspire to.
The loan deal – all but confirmed on Friday – suggests that Henry is desperate to match the achievements of his rival. Henry is still a class above most of his Major League Soccer colleagues; perhaps some small part of him believes that he still belongs at the top level.
After watching Henry train for more than a month, Wenger should have an accurate idea of exactly what the Arsenal staff has to work with.
“He still has class, pace and quality. He is here to help the club he loves. But we must not put too much pressure on him. He is 34,” Wenger warned.
But in the Premier League, pressure is difficult to avoid. Whether Wenger likes it or not, a never-ending parade of cynical observers will examine Henry’s every action. The internet has spawned a generation of merciless experts to complement the mainstream media’s journalists and commentators. The temptation to compare Henry with his former self will no doubt be great.
For all Henry’s talk of “love” and his tears at the recent statue unveiling, he, like Beckham, has returned to Europe with his own footballing legacy in mind. Beckham joined Milan looking to prolong his England career, but Henry, having retired from international football following France’s 2010 World Cup debacle, is searching for something less tangible.
Henry is after pride: the pride he lost in South Africa and the pride players automatically forfeit when they move to Major League Soccer for one last pay-day.
When Henry joined the New York Red Bulls in 2010, he accepted defeat – accepted that age had caught-up with him and that his career at the top of the European game was over. Now he is backtracking, reckoning that he still has something left in the tank, that further Premier League success is still possible.
After succeeding last term despite the deficiencies of his Red Bulls teammates, Henry is starting to believe in himself again. He sees Arsenal as the perfect setting for a high-profile comeback.
His plan depends on one vital assumption: that he still has what it takes to play in the Premier League. That assumption, though, is a tenuous one.
On the evidence of Henry’s final season at the Camp Nou and the World Cup that followed it, he is neither fast enough nor clever enough to star for Arsenal. Add to that the near infallibility of Robin Van Persie this season, and Henry’s prospects during the two-month loan begin to lose their luster. Presumably, Henry has more than a few token substitute appearances in mind.
His master plan comes with massive risk.
Henry has succumbed to niggling injuries throughout his time in the United States and it is a telling fact that the one still-unresolved aspect of his loan deal is insurance.
Serious injury – and, in the rough and tumble world of England’s top flight, everyone is susceptible – would not only jeopardize his chances next year in MLS, but also confirm what many thought when Henry’s move to New York was first announced: a once-great player is too brittle to continue.
Beyond the physical lie mental and emotional dangers. Failure in England would dash whatever illusions Henry holds about himself and his own abilities, eradicating any last dreams of an Indian Summer.
Failure could irreparably tarnish Henry’s legacy. A series of misfiring performances could seriously damage the memory of his sparkling Arsenal career. His last stand at the highest level might be remembered for its comedy, not its heroism.
Henry is already legendary, already a hero to millions. This loan is a gamble likely to backfire.
Henry’s confidence is admirable, his prudence is anything but.