Adaptation. A word used frequently when a once athletic and sprightly footballer ages. As father time reduces powerful box to box midfielders to awkwardly immobile figures, the suggestion is that they must adapt to a different role.
The law of averages suggests that some will excel in new positions, some will perish. Francesco Totti is a shining example of someone who switched from a striker, to a wide player to a creative number ten at various stages of his gloriously elongated and successful career.
In contrast, Michael Owen struggled when his physical attributes diminished, spending his later years as a professional rotating between the bench and the stands.
For Thierry Henry, evolution has always been part of his footballing manuscript. He arrived at Arsenal from Juventus in 1999 as a raw, inconsistent winger. Arsene Wenger converted him into an outstanding centre forward, leading the line for one of the Premier League’s great teams.
When he signed for Barcelona, he shifted to a wide forward role, acclimatising to the technical superiority of Spanish football. Henry’s latest incarnation in Major League Soccer now taps into his inherent vision, technique and awareness, as his body deteriorates.
This season, Henry has dropped deeper as more of a number ten than a striker to devastating effect. He has evidently struck up a great understanding with Bradley Wright-Phillips, the top goal scorer in MLS. As Wright-Phillips and former PSG striker Péguy Luyindula use their pace to run in behind defenders, Henry floats into space and produces an array of passing to find the two forwards. One underrated facet of Henry’s game in his prime was his chance creation and assist making, with 93 goals made at Arsenal.
In 33 games this season, Henry has made 18 goals. In the first leg of the eastern conference semi-final, he illustrated that creativity in a 2-0 Red Bulls victory over DC United. Both goals were worthy of repetitive vine viewing, the first a sumptuous backheel to set up Wright-Phillips, the second a perfectly clipped 30-yard pass between two defenders onto goal scorer Luyindula’s boot laces.
In the second leg, the latter combination were at it again, Henry delivering a perfect left footed cross for Luyindula to easily tap home.
Of course, Henry has not just created, he has also scored aplenty; he has 10 goals in 2014 and 52 in 133 games with the Red Bulls. While his acceleration clearly is not the same, Henry is still capable of finishing with precision or simply thrashing home spectacular strikes from distance. His long range volley against Chicago Fire (described as a BANGER by MLS’s YouTube channel) is a lesson for the league’s defenders…namely, don’t allow Henry time anywhere near the box.
The impact Henry has had on MLS is immeasurable. The second designated player after a certain former England captain, the Frenchman has raised the standards of the players around him. If David Beckham’s role was to generate interest and out eyes on the product, Henry was brought to the league to elevate the standard of the game itself.
Henry has embraced the soccer culture in America and clearly enjoys the lifestyle in New York. He has remained tight-lipped on his future though, with his current multi-million dollar contract running out after this season.
Henry has kept everyone including teammates guessing on his next step, as goalkeeper Luis Robles put it:
Honestly, I wish I could tell you that I had a gut feeling but I have no idea. He jokes about it, so you can’t tell if he’s serious. About this being his last year; about how he’s coming back next year. He just keeps us on our toes. There’s not too much stock in what he says right now because his decision might not be made up. Or he might have made it up before the seasons started, I don’t know. Only he knows.
What is for certain is that New York travel to Massachusetts on Sunday to face New England Revolution in the second leg of the Eastern Conference final. They have a 2-1 deficit to try overturn without top scorer Wright-Phillips and they face a motivated Revolution side with MVP candidate Lee Nyugen in sparkling form.
The Revolution play at Gillette Stadium on an artificial pitch. Henry’s deteriorating Achilles tendons can’t take the strain of non-grass surfaces and he has avoided games in the past few years because of that. There is little doubt he will play though.
Pressure is something Henry has assumed throughout his 20 years as a professional. At Arsenal he was chief protagonist, at Barcelona he worked his way into Pep Guardiola’s intricate system. He also shouldered the burden for France in the post Zidane era before the ill-fated 2010 World Cup.
His current team needs Henry to extract every last ounce of brilliance from his veins. The odds are weighted against Red Bulls so fans of Henry should tune into the game, wherever they are in the world. It may be the last, fleeting minutes in the career of one of football’s most diverse stars.