Like the migration of a particularly rare bird, Friday brought the now-annual news that Thierry Henry has begun winter training with Arsenal, joining up with his former club once again as a way of maintaining his fitness levels.
With no obligations with his current club, New York Red Bulls, until the end of February following their somewhat surprising exit from the MLS playoffs earlier this month, Henry has made his return to London Colney slightly earlier than anticipated, sparking with it the predictable rumours that he could yet sign for the Gunners on a short-term loan in January.
That is what he did in 2012, of course, scoring two goals—a memorable winner at home to Leeds in the FA Cup, and then another clincher in the Premier League away to Sunderland weeks later—in what at times felt something like a homecoming tour for a man who scored a club-record 226 goals for the north London club in his first spell there, between 1999 and 2007.
Of course, for manager Arsene Wenger there were reasons beyond pure sentiment for bringing Henry back that year. With both Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho heading off to the African Cup of Nations at the time, his side were woefully short of options—Henry’s presence would tie the side over (on the occasions they could not rely solely on Robin van Persie) for the month the two African forwards were on international duty.
Wind on two years and Arsenal remain similarly lacking options in the forward department, albeit for entirely different reasons. Injury to Lukas Podolski has left Olivier Giroud as the only viable lead striker in the squad (Yaya Sanogo appears to still be a work in progress), meaning signing another striker in January is surely a priority of Wenger’s.
That seems unlikely to be Henry, however. The 36-year-old did not sign for the club at the start of 2013 following a similar unofficial spell, having resumed training following a short Christmas break (you get one of those if you are not actually contracted to the club) well short of the sort of match fitness that would have made another loan move worthwhile.
It is possible that Henry will avoid the thoroughly understandable temptation to enjoy Christmas this year, and thus be ready to go on January 1—making a short-term loan deal more viable for both parties. Then again, signing a new player would seem to have more long-term sense than the short-term return of Henry, a player who is now arguably almost 10 years removed from his absolute peak.
Henry is clearly a declining force—even more so than he was two years ago, when his performances in an Arsenal shirt were, if not quite a shadow of his former self, then certainly a paler shade.
For the Red Bulls this year he has continued to show the mental faculties—the vision, the spatial awareness and tactical understanding—that helped him become one of the world’s best, but the physical gifts that scared so many Premier League defences have been noticeable in their natural decline.
“#Henrying,” the viral phenomenon that celebrated his laid-back celebration of a tap-in goal, inadvertently said so much more about the Gallic forward’s current condition than was initially intended..
Henry is highly unlikely to be called upon to be Giroud’s temporary understudy in an official capacity, then, but that does not mean he will be of no use to the club. Indeed, he can probably be of even more use to the club and Giroud if he is focusing on matters in and around the training centre.
After all, who better to continue Giroud’s education than a fellow forward who reached the peak of his craft?
Twelve months ago, Giroud was eager to see Henry join the club on a short term, saying it would be an honour to play with the World Cup winner.
But it sounds like, at Colney at least, Henry’s advice to Giroud, who was barely five months into life at Arsenal following his summer 2012 move from Montpellier, was less focused on his skills than on matters of adjustment: to a new culture, a new league and new methods.
“It would be great joy to play with him,” Giroud told L’Equipe 12 months ago, when asked about the prospect of Henry returning on loan in 2013. “When you come into a new club, there is a time to adapt.
"Even Thierry Henry experienced it. If I could achieved just half of what he achieved...”
Henry seems to have been a constant point of reference for Giroud; he cited the striker as someone he wanted to emulate when he was first unveiled at Arsenal, and then invoked his statistics (incorrectly, as it turned out) to defend his goalscoring record at the end of his first season.
"I've scored 17 goals and had 11 assists—that is better than Henry and Drogba in their first seasons," Giroud said in the summer (Henry actually scored 26, with a matching 11 assists), according to ESPN. "This is the quality I have.
“I have got better with this team and this staff. It is another level. I want to continue to improve."
The presence of Henry around the training ground will only help Giroud in that quest. He may be able to guide his younger charge on how to live responsibly off the pitch (although there is no suggestion Giroud does not already dedicate himself to doing that), but he will almost certainly be able to offer him tips on the art of being a striker.
His experiences working with Robert Pires (that penalty aside) may help him deepen Giroud’s understanding with Mesut Ozil, while he was also surely be able to demonstrate astute movements off the ball (an area Giroud admittedly already excels in...but one can always improve) and how perhaps to attack different types of defenders and defences.
Henry has previously underlined his desire to remain involved with Arsenal one his playing days wind to a close, potentially in a coaching role.
"All I know is that I will be involved in the game for sure and hopefully be involved with Arsenal because that is the heart talking there, that's the team that I support. Forget about me as a player, that's the team I support,” Henry noted, according to The Independent, earlier this year.
"In any type or shape, if I can go back to the club I would love to do it, but it's not up to me. That would be a desire, more a desire than something that can be officialised, I still have two years playing here and then I will see.
"But I would definitely love to be back with Arsenal."
It is worth noting that Henry’s mentoring would not necessarily be limited to Giroud. Having previously worked closely with Theo Walcott and, more recently, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the likes of Sanogo and Serge Gnabry might also glean much of use from Henry’s vast experiences.
Henry is unlikely to formally join Arsenal for a third time—but that does not necessarily mean he will not have a real impact during his latest time with the club.