Arsenal focus

The dangers of the Henry magic

January 10, 2012
By Ben Blackmore

Hands up those who knew where Thierry Henry would put it? Hands up from everybody that knew in the split second that he broke the offside trap - on the inside-left channel of the area - that he would open his body and slide it across Leeds goalkeeper Andy Lonergan?

Thierry Henry
PA PhotosThierry Henry delivered in perfect fashion on his comeback

It could have been Fabien Barthez for Manchester United at Highbury. It could have been Peter Enckelman, watching the ball roll wide of him as Henry completed a thrilling 3-2 comeback against Aston Villa. In truth, the man between the sticks could have been anybody, and still Henry would have placed that ball tantalisingly wide of the left glove, as he did so often en route to becoming the club's record scorer. That was the mercurial Frenchman's trademark, and much like a right-wing cross from David Beckham - who watched from the stands - you knew it was coming, yet almost nobody could prevent it.

Monday night's 1-0 win at Emirates Stadium was magical, even for a neutral observer. Unless your season ticket had "White Hart Lane" emblazoned across it (or Elland Road of course), it was simply impossible to avoid smiling at Henry's Arsenal comeback. Most in attendance will have watched the first 68 minutes desperately hoping the Gunners did not score, knowing the script would forever be tarnished if Henry arrived with Arsenal already a goal up.

Fortunately, Marouane Chamakh and Andrei Arshavin got their lines right for once - even if they did so by getting them wrong in front of goal. Two fading forces with not a shred of confidence between them, they merely held the stage like two poorly-scripted comedians in front of a frustrated audience, until the play's leading act was ready to perform.

Even the Leeds players seemed to play in a manner in which they were waiting to accept their fate, and all the while on the sidelines Arsene Wenger knew he held the trump card.

"It was a little bit of a dream, because it was a story about football you would tell some young children," Wenger said, while a disbelieving Henry added: "It is kind of weird, since I came back from holiday I did not think I would play for Arsenal again, now I score a winner."

It was claimed, prior to his comeback, the biggest danger of Henry's return would be the potential damage he could inflict on his legacy as the club's unstoppable goal-machine. A series of poor performances would provide the type of unforgettable memory left by a boxer that has fought on past his best - Henry might "do a Mike Tyson", perhaps.

However, the real problem for Wenger and Arsenal actually comes with Henry's success - as ridiculous as that may sound. The deal to bring him home is only a temporary one that cannot finish with Henry scoring the winning goal in the Champions League final or leading the Gunners all the way to FA Cup glory. Henry will sprinkle his magic, direct his troops when he is on the pitch (extremely visibly if Monday night is anything to go by), and then just before the trophies are handed out, he'll have to leave. That is Wenger's problem.

Imagine, as is likely, that Wenger does not start Henry in the next game against Swansea, or the one after that against Manchester United. Picture, as is also likely, that Arshavin finds himself on the end of an early chance and shanks it wildly into the side-netting, as he did on multiple occasions against Leeds. How long until patience among Arsenal fans expires - as it would do at any club in this position? How long until one fan, then several, and eventually a collective voice whispers "Henry would have buried that"?

Arshavin will know that every time he hears the famous "Thierry Henry" chant it is in his position (Chamakh is at the African Nations Cup) that Arsenal fans are desperate to see their greatest hero line up alongside current figurehead Robin van Persie.

Thierry Henry makes his Arsenal return as a replacement for Marouane Chamakh
GettyImagesThierry Henry makes his Arsenal return as a replacement for Marouane Chamakh

Should Henry bag two or three more goals before he heads back to the MLS, there will be similar discontent in his absence. How wrong will it feel if he inspires Arsenal on a run of good results in the league, the FA Cup and the Champions League, and it is then left to Arshavin, Chamakh and Co to finish the job when he departs?

The answer is very wrong. There is a comparison in Robbie Fowler's return to Liverpool in 2006. In his first half-season, he scored more frequently than any other Reds striker, so his stay extended into the next season - culminating in the Champions League final against AC Milan.

Finding a Liverpool fan that did not believe Fowler should have been part of that squad for the final in Athens - which was lost 2-1 to Milan - is as difficult a task as stopping that trademark Henry side-of-the-boot finish. Indeed belief, destiny - call it what you will - still has many Kopites believing 'God' would have made the difference. That is the size of the task that may face Wenger as a side-effect of Henry's success. When expectation was pinned on Henry, as it was against Leeds, he delivered more often than not throughout a career that has now yielded 227 Arsenal goals, two league titles and three FA Cups.

Will Arshavin, Chamakh or any of Arsenal's other attacking talents be able to say the same when the big moment arrives, or will they be caught standing like that statue of the great man that sits outside what remains his stage?