THIERRY HENRY: THE BEST MOST MEN COULD GET
I was watching Barcelona beat up on Valencia this weekend, and I was struck by the extent to which an American commentator, Phil Schoen, was trashing Thierry Henry. Before he had scored his first (of 3) goal(s), Schoen took every opportunity he could to point out how the “old” Thierry Henry would have done this, and the "old" Thierry Henry would have done that. Thankfully, Ray Hudson, that over-enthusiastic former MLS guru had the good sense to point out a couple of things that if Shoen knew a thing about football, would have shut him up...of course, we would have no such luck.
It’s not the first time Henry has been castigated for his performances in Barcelona, but for the life of me I really can’t understand why. All he’s done since he arrived is lead the team in goals in all competitions last year, this despite coming to the club and playing with a back and groin injury his first 3 months, and furthermore, playing in a new position in deference to Samuel Eto’o who, suddenly can do no wrong. I should point out that Shoen (as have other Barca supporters, for that matter) has been critical of him too – go figure. I guess, 90 goals in 119 appearances isn't good enough. For someone who has (clearly) never played the game at probably any level, and certainly not professionally, it’s easy to throw stones at the best players of a generation when your expectations are so out of proportion with the realities of the professional game – it’s a bit like a day-trader thinks it’s easy to make money in stocks when all he’s experienced is a bull market, then when the bears come rumbling through, suddenly nobody knows what they’re doing.
I would beg to differ.
In his first season in the Catalan capital, Henry made 42 appearances, many of them as a substitute, and scored 19 times – that was good enough to lead the team in goals, and a strike rate of nearly a goal every other game, that most strikers would sell their first born children to have. This year, he has 9 goals in 19 appearances, many of those were also as a substitute, but somehow that’s not enough for the likes of Phil Schoen. By comparison, Bojan Krkic has scored 10 in 36 and everybody’s favorite eskimo, Eidur Gudjohnsen has the same number of goals in 53 appearances. Even Lionel Messi has only 40 goals in 89 appearances, a worse scoring rate than Henry, but because everybody loves him at the moment, nobody seems to care that his strike rate is not even the equal of Henry currently, and doesn’t even compare to what Henry did at Arsenal in his physical prime. Eto’o is clearly the gold standard – it kind of makes you wonder why on earth anyone at the club was considering selling him this summer .
There are a lot of reasons why the expectation that Henry would score goals as freely at Barcelona as he did at Arsenal, were a recipe for dashed hopes, but the example of Eto’o, and the case for Henry himself, shows that Barcelona would do well to consider those factors before jumping off the Henry bandwagon just yet.
First, he is at a new club and in a new league. Even the great Zidane had his worst seasons the first seasons he moved to new clubs, and look how he turned out. The EPL, as good as the top teams are, is hardly comparable to La Liga, particularly when it comes to the mid-table teams. Most of them would likely be competing for European places if they were transplanted to another league, but in Spain their quality and skills are mostly in vain. A new team that doesn’t center around Henry makes it impossible for him to get the same level and production of service as before, and knowing your defenders is as important to consistent goal-scoring in Spain as it is anywhere else, so time for adjustment is probably the best prescription for success. The slower pace of the game in Spain probably contributes to fewer goal-scoring opportunities, and different ones, making the need for adjustments even more important.
Second, he is playing out of position – at Arsenal he was a center forward who drifted to the wings to find space for himself, coming back into the middle to score his goals. At Barcelona, he’s got white powder on his heels for all the time he spends starting out on the wings. Defenders are taught to defend from the middle out, so a center forward drifting wide can more easily escape his markers, than a winger working his way in. And even if he played in the middle, there’d be another winger out there taking up the space he normally found for himself at Arsenal. Thus the formation and positioning at Barca presents difficult challenges to scoring in the same way he did at Arsenal. As such, he has to find new ways to be effective – ways he hasn’t had to come up with for probably 7 years. Speaking of which….
Third, Henry is 31 years old. Now he can still run like the wind, and to me he looks the same as he did before, but anyone who’s crossed this terrible threshold in age knows that acceleration, resilience and recovery time all suffer with age, so his appearances will diminish, and as such, so will his goal tally. Furthermore, as you get older, and your body starts to fail you in oh-so-many little ways, you begin to lose confidence in yourself physically – that hesitation is the difference between 20 goals and 30, and another good reason to mitigate our expectations.
Finally, I don’t think Henry’s teammates are looking to him to be the savior as he was at Arsenal, and as such, they seem to use him more as an outlet than as a go to guy. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that Messi can be a bit greedy when he gets past the first defender, which is fine if you’re only value is as a scorer (like Eto’o) but that kid’s value lies as much in what he does to make his teammates better, as the goals he scores. I’ve never seen a guy get a standing ovation from his supporters without even scoring, as he has on several occassions this season, and that’s because everyone can recognize his value even if he’s not tallying goals. The same cannot be said for Henry – I would venture to guess that if you took him off the field, Eto’o and Messi would suffer from more defensive attention, and probably the team's performance wouldn't be so good. Well, look how they did without a fully performing Ronadinho last year.
At the end of the day, perhaps Henry and his Gillette commercial contemporaries (Roger Federer and Tiger Woods) suffer from the same weight of expectations that makes perfectly good results for the average player look like a bad year for them. After all, 226 goals in 369 games is enough to make anyone look like he just came down from Mount Olympus, but does anyone expect Gudjohnsen to score 29 goals in 66 appearances? I doubt it, and if he did, he’d be hailed as a Barca’s unsung hero. But this is Henry’s tally in the blaugrana, and you’d never know that he was performing so much better than his (most of his) teammates by the comments of idiots like Shoen.
Ask yourself this – would you rather have Henry at 70% or Gudjohnsen at 100%? If you’d take the latter, you should probably take up bird-watching, rather than football.