x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Arsene Wenger and Thierry Henry a marriage of respect

This reunion of manager and former star is less about sentimentality and more about current needs being met.

Young Arsenal fans make sure Thierry Henry knows he is always welcome at The Emirates Stadium.
Young Arsenal fans make sure Thierry Henry knows he is always welcome at The Emirates Stadium.

Thierry Henry smiled and cried as a bronze statue of a famous goal celebration from the great striker was unveiled back in early December.

Arsene Wenger, though, was more interested in the real thing and had already seen enough in training to want Henry back at Arsenal.

Monday evening, Henry will be back on Wenger's team sheet for the first time in four and half years.

Not fit enough for 90 minutes of English football, he is unlikely to start the FA Cup tie with Leeds United, yet Wenger has no concerns of the 34 year old tarnishing memories now embodied in stadium sculpture.

"You cannot take away from people what they have done and what he has delivered will stay forever," said Wenger. "I think it can just make the statue a little bit bigger."

It is certainly a different man who arrives on a short-term loan from the New York Red Bulls to the at times destructively egotistic figure who exited to Barcelona in the summer of 2007.

Then Henry was both captain and dominant presence in the dressing room, an individual whose ability to win some games single-handedly saw him indulge in player-manager-like behaviour.

In the first season after the club's hugely expensive move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium, the first team had taken on a youthful cast, resources further stretched by the £5 million-plus (Dh28.5m) signing-on fee Henry demanded for extending his Arsenal contract.

There were times when players felt obliged to pass the ball to the captain; and times when they were aggressively taken to task for perceived failings. If Henry's £16.1 million (Dh91.2m) sale to Barcelona followed a Wenger principle of never allowing any one individual to grow larger than his club, the manager is diplomatic when discussing the process now.

Did Arsenal's youngsters benefit from Henry's departure?

"No, I think with Thierry it is as simple as this: I wanted him to stay and he said. 'We have a young team, they will be good in three or four years, but I cannot wait. I am 30 and I have to go somewhere we have a chance to win'," Wenger said. "We had the same scenario last year, but the only difference was that the player [Cesc Fabregas] was 24."

Though Henry won everything at Camp Nou, he never became the club's predominant player. Back problems that began to slow the striker down in London remained in Spain. The directness of his attacking play never completely meshed with Barca's intricacies.

Pep Guardiola ultimately converted him into a deluxe substitute.

That is almost exactly how Henry expects to be employed at Arsenal.

He has been secured on £70,000 per week wages and a hefty MLS-mandated insurance premium until mid-February to cover for the African Nations Cup absences of Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh.

Though available only for the away leg at AC Milan, the Frenchman has also been added to Arsenal's Champions League squad.

"It looks like I'm going to be a bench player," said Henry.

"Or maybe not on the bench but more of an out-of-the-side type of player. When the club you love asks you just to be a squad player, so be it. I just love the club so much.

"I am not 25 any more, I am not going to take the ball from the middle of the park and dribble past five or six players. I remember Dennis [Bergkamp] and he used to be the main front guy.

"Suddenly he was playing behind the striker and if you have the awareness to see things before players, you can get away with not having your legs. That's what I am going to try to bring to this team if I have to play."

Though Wenger similarly talks of an Henry who is "more open to other people", the decision to bring him back was a pragmatic one, made even before the idea had been floated to the player.

Henry asked for close-season training facilities and Wenger, having observed the striker's "pride and desire to win" an MLS play-off game against LA Galaxy, marked the mid-November start date as a trial.

"It took me two or three weeks [to decide to sign him]," said Wenger. "You have to get used to the idea, to see the kind of impact with the team, how he is physically, how motivated he is to come in every day and work hard. The physical level in the Premier League is the highest in the world. So you have to see how much he can cope with that."

Ignore the romantic overtones, suggests Henry biographer Philippe Auclair - this is not the rekindling of a manager-player love affair.

"People always overstate the relationship between Henry and Wenger," said Auclair.

"They are close to each other, but they're not friends. It is a very good working relationship based on mutual respect and how much they've done for each other.

"That is enough, because they are both so driven."

 

sports@thenational.ae