Since 2004-05 we have witnessed two types of disappointments. Firstly the years without trophies despite the fact that we have played trophy-worth games on four occasions (Community Shield 2005, League Cup 2006, 2011 and, the most important one, Champions’ League 2006) only to end on the losing side with an identical scoreline – 2:1. The second might have been one of the reasons for the lack of silverware – our armband has been passed around too many arms in the previous 8 seasons.
The wandering destiny of our armband have caused people to make sour jokes about how we should have made Squillaci or Chamakh as our captain in order to lose them ASAP. Here are the stories of our recent captains and this one is going to be about arguably the greatest player in Arsenal history.
Arsenal Fact File:
Name: Thierry Henry
Born: August 17, 1977, Les Ulis, France
Previous Club(s): AS Monaco, Juventus Torino, Arsenal FC, Barcelona, New York Red Bulls
Joined Arsenal: August 3rd 1999, January 6th 2012 (on loan)
Left Arsenal: July 1st 2007, February 15th 2012 (loan ended)
Total Appearances: 377
Total Goals: 228
Total Assists: 93
It’s very hard to write a text about the best player Arsenal have ever had. Whatever you write about King Henry, at the end of the text you will realize that you forgot to write something that was under your nose all the time. It’s a bit like picking which of his 228 goals in an Arsenal shirt you consider as the best – no matter which goal you pick, someone might say that you made a wrong choice by mentioning some other cracker.
There are players who are so great that they decide who will win the championship. Thierry Henry, in all his greatness, was probably the key factor that decided not one but two close title races in 1998-99. That season in England, as you probably know, Arsenal fought a close title battle with FAnchester United and Chelsea. In order to replace the brilliant Ian Wright who left Arsenal to join West Ham, Arsene Wenger tried to sign another striker.
One of the strikers that Wenger was interested in was Thierry Henry, a brilliant 21-year-old talent from AS Monaco who showed some of his class at World Cup 1998 where he scored three goals for the French winning side and earned special praise from one of the best strikers of all time Ronaldo Luis Nazario De Lima (sometimes credited as “The Real Ronaldo”) who mentioned Henry as a player who impressed him the most during the Group Stage of the competition. Henry showed his class in Monaco’s title-winning campaign in 1996-97 and their Champions’ League run in 1997-98 when Monaco reached the semifinals before losing to Juventus. His first manager at Monaco was Arsene Wenger but both Henry and Wenger would have to wait for some time before reaching the highest point of their careers. Arsenal did get a striker from the French league though – Kaba Diawara joined from Bordeaux.
Instead of joining Arsenal, Thierry Henry spent the first half of the season in Monaco before he joined Juventus in order to fill the gap left in the Bianconeri attack after Alessandro Del Piero injured knee ligaments. Carlo Ancelotti – who was Juventus manager back then – mostly used Henry as a left winger, just like Wenger did at Monaco. Juventus had had a terrible campaign that saw them far from retaining the title – they only managed to reach the Intertoto-Cup, a competition that used to be a purgatory with a few tickets for UEFA Cup. The title race was between AC Milan and Lazio. The latter were seven points clear ahead of Milan with only seven matches to go. However, Lazio first lost their city derby against arch-rivals Roma 3:1 while two members of their defense (Nesta and Mihajlović) were suspended for the forthcoming clash with Juventus.
That rainy Saturday in Rome turned out to be the shiniest day for Henry in Italy – he scored two out of the three goals he scored for Juventus in total and enabled Milan to reduce the gap to a sole point. After Lazio threw two more points at Florence in the penultimate match of the season in a 1:1 draw against Fiorentina, Milan went on to win the title with one point more than their Roman opponents.
In England, Arsenal were doing well but needed additional fire-power to compete with their rivals so Wenger signed Nwankwo Kanu in January 1999. They were doing a brilliant job to recover after slow start – before the penultimate match of the season against Leeds United, Arsenal were on a 19-match-unbeaten streak including 16 victories and just three draws and were level on points and goal-difference with FAnchester United. The Red Devils had only one advantage on the Gunners – they scored more goals.
Arsenal went to Elland Road to play a tough Leeds side. We had our chances (as well as the hosts who failed to convert a penalty) couldn’t find the net so Wenger tried with the no-goal machine Kaba Diawara in the last 20 minutes of the game. Diawara had his chances to score but it wasn’t his day…just like any other day he spent in our shirt. Instead of victory with at least a two-goal-margin with Diawara scoring at least twice in the process, we ended on the losing side thanks to a late goal from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
Who knows what would happen had Arsene Wenger – at any point of 1998-99 season – signed Henry from Monaco. Perhaps Henry’s golden boots instead of Diawara’s wooden ones would have retained the title for Arsenal at Elland Road. Perhaps things would be different in Italy too – without defeat against Juventus directly caused with Henry’s goals, Lazio would edge out Milan or at least play a play-off match that would settle who would take the title.
Still, Henry’s career at Arsenal was so brilliant that it was worth waiting for. He came in August 1999 as a late signing from Juventus. This time, he had to fill the gap left after Nicolas Anelka signed for Real Madrid and was used as striker. Henry had a slow start but once he found his shooting boots (a winning goal against Southampton), he never stopped scoring and impressing. After Arsenal were relegated from the Champions’ League Group Stage to the UEFA Cup, Henry was playing a key role in reaching the Final of the competition. He scored in every away game and added some important goals at home as well. His 17 goals in the Premiership helped Arsenal to reach second place for the second season in a row, only with a huge gap of 18 points behind United. Henry’s tally of 26 goals weren’t bad at all, especially for his debut season, but the best was yet to come. However, the only trophy Arsenal won was the Charity Shield that took place before Henry joined the club. In a weird turn of events, Arsenal went out of all three cup-competitions (UEFA Cup, FA Cup, League Cup) on penalties with defeat against Galatasaray being especially painful.
The following season saw Henry score less goals (22 in all competitions) but he was scoring more goals in big matches such as against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham. The goal he scored against Manchester United who had Henry’s former team-mate Fabien Barthez in goal has been considered as one of the most beautiful goals ever in the Premiership – a first touch and unstoppable volley proved that Henry had everything a world-class striker needs. He was also scoring important goals in the Champions’ League including a winning goal at Gerland against Lyon and helped Arsenal go through both Group Phases before losing to future finalists Valencia on away goals (though not before Henry scored an equalizer in the home victory). The highlight of the season should have been the FA Cup Final against Liverpool. We took the lead through Ljungberg’s goal and Liverpool had to be reduced to 10 men when Henry rounded Westerweld and sent the ball towards goal before Henchoz stopped it with a hand. Unfortunately, the referees didn’t see and Liverpool managed to pull off a come-back thanks to Michael Owen’s brace.
But in 2001-02 all the patience finally paid off. Arsenal won the double and Henry’s goals were a key factor. The Frenchman scored 32 goals in all competitions with a late brace against United with a huge help from Barthez being one of the most important moments of the season. It’s a bit ironic that Arsenal secured the title in a match Henry didn’t play – he wasn’t on the field when “we won it at Old Trafford”.
In the Champions’ League Henry scored seven goals (a beauty from the free-kick against former club Juventus) but it was two consecutive penalties he missed that stopped us from qualifying from the Second Group Stage – first he missed against Deportivo at home (we lost 2:0) and then against Juventus away (we lost 1:0 against a second string side).
In 2002-03 Henry scored exactly the same number of goals he did in the prior season – he scored 24 goals in the Premiership (only this time he added an incredible 23 assists!), 7 in Champions’ League and 1 in FA Cup again. This time, it was only enough for retaining theFA Cup. We were 8 points ahead of United in March but we failed to win a home match against them despite Henry scoring another brace and we kept collecting bad results, mostly due to injuries, own goals and red cards that cost us heavily. A home defeat to Leeds at Highbury two weeks before the end of the season meant the visitors retained their Premiership status and United won the title. In the Champions’ League, we failed to reach quarterfinals again after ending third in the Second Group Stage behind Ajax and Valencia despite Henry scoring a hat-trick at Olimpico against Roma in a 3:1 victory. Henry’s hat-trick against Roma was a complete collection as he scored with both feet and a header. However, the closing weeks of the season had happy colours as we won FA Cup and won two last matches in Premiership with goal-difference of 10:1. It was a very promising preview of the next season. Henry himself was voted second in the FIFA World Player of the Year awards.
And what a season 2003-04 was! Arsenal won the title in the Premiership in a unique way by not losing a single match throughout the whole league campaign. Henry was the main man again scoring 39 goals in all competitions and 30 of those secured him another Golden Boot in England. Henry was producing magic in both the Premiership and Champions’ League and it’s hard to pick the most impressive of his goals or performances. It’s all up to you whether you like more the way he led us to come-back in the tricky home fixture against Liverpool during a fixture congestion by scoring a brilliant hat-trick making Liverpool defenders look like dwarfs; the way he scored two goals in the 5:1 destroying of Inter Milan at Giuseppe Meazza with his second goal particularly impressing – he had beaten Javier Zanetti, one of the most solid defenders football has had, before sending an unstoppable low shot into the net; the rocket he launched over Roy Carroll’s head in the home draw against FAnchester United which meant he scored in four consecutive home matches against United; the way he accepted an opportunity gifted by Carlo Cudicini against Chelsea – powered by a new sugar-daddy – to score the winning goal. Unfortunately, his brilliant performances again didn’t give him an award that he deserved – he was again a runner-up in the FIFA World Player of the Year choice but Golden Boot couldn’t be taken away from him.
However, it was obvious that the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea changed the surface of English and European football and it didn’t happen in a good way. Abramovich injected billions into Chelsea and, after his first season didn’t go well, he was trying to sign the best players in the world. And, Henry was arguably the best striker in the world, the one that could have won matches single-handedly, so Abramovich was ready to splash a record amount of money for him but that transfer never happened. In 2004-05, Henry reached the 30-goal-mark again with 25 goals scored in the Premiership which secured him another Golden Boot as he was joint winner with Diego Forlan. Despite the striker scoring a brace against Chelsea in the first of Mourinho’s visit to Highbury, it wasn’t enough for neither victory nor for retaining the title. We had to settle with the FA Cup trophy that Henry had to miss due to injury. Sometimes, players score brilliant goals in not-so-important matches so those moments of pure geniality went without deserved attention. Henry’s back-heel goal against Charlton in a 4:0 victory at Highbury – he back-heeled the ball through the defender’s legs into the net – was one of the best goals ever in the Premiership but it was usually overlooked in choices for the best goals ever.
The following season was one that was the start of Arsenal’s transition and not just because it was the very last season Arsenal played home matches at Highbury. After Vieira left to Juventus, it was Thierry Henry who got the armband. Given the performances in the Premiership, it would be proper to say that Henry ‘The Striker’ was much better than Henry ‘The Captain’. Henry ‘The Striker’ had another successful season – he scored 33 goals including 27 goals in the Premiership that gave him the fourth title of the best goal-scorer in five years. In the Champions’ League Henry scored a brilliant solo-effort at Santiago Bernabeu to knock-out the Spanish giants in the First Knockout Stage and he added one more in the quarterfinals to help Arsenal over-come Juventus 2:0 on aggregate. Arsenal went to the Final where Henry had two great chances to kill off Barcelona while the score-line was still 1:0 to Arsenal but both times his finishing let him down. Eventually, Barcelona exploited the fact they had played 11 on 10 for 80 minutes and won 2:1. Still, it was great year for Henry ‘The Striker’ as he was breaking record after record – he became the biggest goal-scorer in Arsenal history, he became the largest goal-scorer in the Premiership in Arsenal history and he became the only player to score 100 goals at Highbury. Henry ‘The Captain’, on the other hand, seemed to lack something that his precedes had.
Perhaps that was the reason why Arsenal didn’t win any trophies for the first time in five years. In World Cup 2006, Henry was a member of the last team that has won a knockout-stage game against Spain, he scored a winner against Brazil in the quarterfinals and earned a decisive penalty in the semis against Portugal.
In a way, 2006-07 was the ultimate change. Arsenal left Highbury, a stadium at which it seemed that Henry has his own part from which he scores goals – the one that you can see on the right side of your television, a little bit outside the box, on the left side of our attack – with an unstoppable right-footed curl. Henry was hit by injuries and that was the main reason he wasn’t Arsenal’s top-scorer. He played less than a half of the matches in the Premiership which reduced him to 10 goals to which he added two more in other competitions. Still, his goal against FAnchester United for a 2:1 victory in the 92nd minute to complete the double victory over the soon-to-be-champions – the last goal he scored for Arsenal at the Emirates during first spell – was a symbolic farewell of a true winner. He also scored an impressive goal at Anfield to seal our victory over The Reds in the FA Cup.
Due to changes to our board, Henry decided to leave Arsenal for Barcelona. His first season in Barcelona wasn’t the best as so-called the Fantastic Four – Ronaldinho, Messi, Eto’o and Henry – couldn’t fight with Real Madrid in Spain nor with FAnchester United in the Champions’ League. However, his second season was excellent as Henry scored 26 goals in the Barcelona treble. Despite forming a respectable trident with Eto’o and Messi, neither Henry nor Eto’o were given starring roles in Guardiola’s team for 2009-10. The Cameroonian left to Inter in part exchange deal for Ibrahimović while Henry stayed but managed to score just four goals in an entire season. It was the first season after 1998-99 in which Henry didn’t reach double digits. It’s interesting to say that Arsenal have had the best season in the Premiership during 8-year-drought in the first season when Henry left. It seemed that the players and Wenger realized they don’t have SuperThierry to rescue them anymore so it was a collective strength, especially the midfield, that kept the Gunners in the title race for so long.
Henry’s career then geared towards a slow retirement – he joined New York Red Bulls where he has been brilliant and still manages to score unbelievable goals. However, he got another call from Arsenal and he answered to join the Gunners on loan. On January 9th 2012, one of the most emotional moments in the life of every Gooner took place. Arsenal were playing Leeds in the FA Cup and it was not going very smoothly as The Gunners failed to score against the Championship side. Then, Henry entered the pitch. It was obvious it’s not the same Henry who dominated and looked dangerous in every second of the game. It was more of an old lion who was ready to roar one more time. And, that roar came very soon after Henry entered – he sent a well-placed shot to give Arsenal the lead and a victory. During his two-month-spell, Henry scored an important last-minute winner against Sunderland after Arshavin’s cross while his goal against Blackburn was later overturned into an own goal from Blackburn defender. The finish against Sunderland was probably the last Henry has scored for Arsenal but it was huge – that goal gave us two important points (remember, we edged out Spuds by just one point last season) and started a streak of victories in the last minutes of the match after being a goal or two down (Sunderland, Spuds, Liverpool, Newcastle). I have a feeling that Henry’s presence in the locker room during the two-month-spell had a huge impact on the self-confidence of our players as they could learn from the real winner. It turned out again that Henry has been a better leader of Arsenal without the cursed armband.
Henry was rumoured to be back from America again and to make third spell with Arsenal this January but it never eventuated. It might be best for both Arsenal and Henry given that he is going to be 36 on 17th August and his body wouldn’t be able to answer to the demands of the Premiership. What we need is a striker that can come close to the height Henry reached in our shirt. Just like it’s impossible to find another Patrick Vieira, it’s impossible to find a new striker with Henry’s abilities – pace, height, ability to score both from free-kicks and open play, to make a run from his own half to the opponents’ box, score and then look like he didn’t have to make a sweat. After Henry’s departure to Barcelona, it was Robin Van Persie who was supposed to be the new Henry…but it’s totally a different story. Strikers that also were supposed to replace Henry didn’t (Eduardo, Adebayor) or haven’t done yet (Walcott). Eduardo’s skillful finishing was cut out by the brutal challenge of Martin Taylor on that sad Saturday afternoon in Birmingham while Adebayor’s hunger for money has excelled his playing qualities.
Conclusion: Thierry Henry is the greatest player Arsenal have ever had. His ability to captain our team wasn’t anywhere near his goal-scoring and playing abilities but, then again, only a few things in this world could compete with them.