Thierry Henry's Impact on Arsenal and the Premier League Will Never Be ForgottenDecember 16, 2014
Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona. Most footballers would be happy to play for just one of those clubs over the course of their career: Thierry Henry played for all of them.
On Tuesday, the 37-year-old confirmed his retirement from football, following a career that saw him win five domestic titles in three different countries, as well as lift a Champions League, World Cup and European Championship.
He amassed 123 caps for France, retiring top of his country's all-time scoring charts with 51 goals. The majority of his club career was spent at Arsenal, where he had eight years and won two Premier League titles and three FA Cups, in the process becoming the club's all-time leading goalscorer.
A statue outside the Emirates Stadium stands as a monument to all he achieved with the London club.
"He deserves it, he is a fantastic player," Ian Wright, the man Henry surpassed atop the Gunners' scoring charts, said at the time. "It is no mean feat to come second to a player like that."
Henry's retirement announcement comes after he had previously confirmed he would not be returning to the New York Red Bulls, the MLS side where he spent the final four years of his career—showing the vision and technique had not deserted him even if his first glorious attribute, his electric pace, had long since faded with the passing of time.
"After 20 years in the game I have decided to retire from professional football," Henry posted on his Facebook page, having given himself time to reflect.
"It has been an incredible journey and I would like to thank all the fans, team-mates and individuals involved with AS Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal FC, FC Barcelona, the New York Red Bulls and of course the French national team that have made my time in the game so special."
Projected to be more of a winger as he progressed through Clairefontaine, the French Football Federation academy that was well ahead of its time, also producing the likes of David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka, Henry was famously turned into a striker by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
Wenger believed his rare blend of blistering speed, technique, size and vision made him the perfect forward for the modern game, even if he was one far removed from traditional British ideas about the No. 9.
Henry did not necessarily start with a clinical edge in front of goal, but he worked diligently at what Wenger demanded of him and soon became one of the most feared players in the league, ending up the top league scorer four times (hitting the magical 30-goal mark once).
His trademark finish, sliding into the box from the left, opening his body and side-footing a right-footed shot inside the far post, became a weekly sight around the country.
At some point, goalkeepers surely knew what Henry was going to do—it was a mark of the Frenchman’s ability that the shots invariably still found the back of the net.
"What is remarkable is he doesn't have the game of a goalscorer," Wenger, undoubtedly the biggest influence on Henry's career, said in 2004. "He has the game of a football player.
"He is as much a provider as a goalscorer. His goals are about coming in, running strong with pace. For me all the great players can play in two roles. Thierry can score goals, take people on and provide the final ball. He is so difficult to mark."
He was the Premier League's top scorer three seasons in a row before ultimately deciding to leave for Barcelona in 2007. Arsenal have not won the league, or indeed finished second, since they let Henry leave for around £16 million.
Henry was never the pivotal figure for Barcelona he had been at Arsenal, although he was occasionally a valued foil for first Ronaldinho, then Lionel Messi. In 2009, he was part of the squad that lifted the Champions League, a triumph that filled the one obvious gap in his glittering CV.
"Everyone knows the love I have for Arsenal," Henry told Sky Sports, for whom he will now work as a pundit, this week. "I love Arsenal Football Club and it will always be that way. But I'm a competitor and I didn't see the team going the way I wanted to go.
"It was very difficult [to leave] and difficult to go somewhere where you have to start from zero again. But...I went there for a reason and, with the help of my team over there and the fans, I did succeed.
"I was part of—and people may argue this—one of the most successful teams in the history of the game. I was part of that and proud to be. Barcelona completed what I was looking for."
Despite that, however, most will remember him for his time in England, the glittering goals he scored for Arsenal when they played far and away the most exciting and attractive football in the country (and arguably the continent).
In the list of great Premier League players, Thierry Henry's place is forever assured.
Alan Shearer may have scored more goals, Ryan Giggs may have won more titles, David Beckham become many times more famous, and Eric Cantona—arguably—inspired more emotional engagement in those who watched him, but Henry was not far behind them in each category, all while helping to drag English football to the forefront of the continental conversation.
It is easy to forget that football in the green and pleasant land was not always the dominant force that it is today, that it previously seemed to lag behind German, Italian and Spanish football in the way the French league is still perceived to today.
Henry was not the first foreign player to become a star on these shores—Cantona's lore is partly wrapped up in the fact he was, and indeed he kicked off the transition we are talking about. But Henry bridged the gap between the time when the Premier League's biggest stars were either homegrown or foreigners not wanted elsewhere, to the point now where the best young players in the world often choose it over all but the most lucrative offers from Real Madrid, Barcelona and one or two others.
The record-breaking television deals the Premier League keeps signing and the monster sponsorship agreements the biggest clubs are able to command are in part a result of Henry and his Arsenal team dazzling audiences at the perfect moment. It was a time when technology allowed games to be broadcast to all corners of the globe. That era brought new fans to the league, along with a new excitement.
Henry was initially a reject himself, moving to Highbury after struggling to nail either a regular starting spot or consistent form in what must count as the one truly disappointing period of his career, his season at Juventus.
Before moving to Turin, he had already won the World Cup on home soil with France—scoring a penalty under insanely pressurised circumstances after a fraught 0-0 draw with Italy in the quarter-finals—one summer after lifting the Ligue 1 title with Monaco.
"When they [Henry and Trezeguet, also in that squad] had to take penalties [against Italy] it was no problem, even though there was a weight and a responsibility on their shoulders," Didier Deschamps, France's captain that tournament, said later, per Yahoo. "It shaped the careers they would go on to have."
Considering that all happened to Henry by the time he was 21, it is perhaps little surprise that he struggled to maintain that astronomical rise in Italy.
Perhaps that disappointment was as good for him as the experience of taking that penalty had been; by discovering that not everything came so easy, it helped focus his work ethic and enable him to go on to produce the sustained brilliance he graced Arsenal with.
For France, he was often a prolific goalscorer, going from a member of the supporting cast in Paris in 1998 to a key cog at the 2000 European Championships and main striker of the team that returned to the World Cup final in 2006.
He was not beloved by the French media or French public, however, partly because he plied his trade abroad and partly due to the perception he did not quite bring the exquisite all-round game he showcased at Arsenal to Les Bleus.
A handball against the Republic of Ireland in a World Cup play-off, an incident that ultimately qualified his country for the 2010 tournament in South Africa but also sparked a rare spell of public criticism, also ensured the often-fickle French public remained cool towards him.
"In England, they've built a statue of Thierry," his Arsenal team-mate Emmanuel Petit said at the start of December, per the Guardian.
"That means a lot. He is revered there. This bad image [in the French press] of Thierry Henry, it annoys me.
"Thierry Henry never had a bad move on the pitch and there were no stories in his private life. He's not hated but he's certainly not loved."
Petit, seemingly warming to his theme, added, "I have great difficulty with the French. I have never seen such arrogant, smug, lying and hypocritical people."
Henry, of course, was none of those things. OK, so perhaps he was a bit arrogant, but when you played the game the way he invariably did, you certainly had a right to be.
But otherwise he gained a reputation as a consummate professional, a decent man on and off the pitch who loved football and dedicated himself to being the best he could be.
"It couldn't happen to a nicer fella," Wright added when his goalscoring record was broken. "It would be different if it was someone you didn't like and he was a horrible person...but he's not like that."
When he returned to Arsenal in 2012 for a short loan, the depth of feeling for him—and not just from Arsenal fans—around grounds in England was evident. Few who were there will forget his comeback goal in an FA Cup third-round tie against Leeds United, one that decided the game.
It was quintessential Henry. Moments like that are why his legacy will endure.
"I have had some amazing memories (mostly good!) and a wonderful experience," Henry concluded on his Facebook post on Tuesday. "I hope you have enjoyed watching as much as I have enjoyed taking part."
How could we not?