Seasons Watched: 1997–98 to 1999–2000 (age 19–21 seasons according to FBref)
At his peak, Thierry Henry was one of the great footballers that we’ve seen in the 21st century, who came to symbolize the continued evolution of the modern attacker through a combination of fluid athleticism and inventiveness as an on-ball initiator. He was the leading cog of Arsenal’s vaunted attack during their greatest era from 2002–04, and combined with incredible individual production throughout his time in England which featured both a strong peak alongside credible longevity, there’s a valid argument to be made in Henry’s favor as the greatest player in the history of the Premier League.
But for the purposes of this series, which is highlighting (and eventually ranking) 20 of the best Under-21 attackers of the past 25 years or so, Henry’s incredible peak isn’t the focus of this exercise. Rather, we’re looking at the early stages of his career which included both domestic success (he helped lead Monaco’s surprise run to the 1998 Champions League semifinals) and international glory (France’s 1998 World Cup triumph, in which he also played a noteworthy role). Mixed in were some struggles, most famously his brief spell at Juventus, and the beginning months at Arsenal when he was trying to rework what eventually became his famous playing style.
When looking back at Henry’s career, though more attention has been understandably given to his peak at Arsenal given the heights he reached, I do find this stretch from 1998–2000 to be just as fascinating. As a teen, he was one of French football’s biggest prospects and seen as a future superstar, but what exactly made people think of him as such a highly rated prospect in those years? Was there as much of a change in playing style in the PL as history has suggested, and just how much of a positive contributor was he offensively?
As a dribbler, Henry was interesting because of the relatively minimalist nature of it. He didn’t have an expansive list of moves in his repertoire which he could utilize to create space off the dribble. Rather, a lot of the work was based off of lulling his opponent into a false sense of security by slowing things down before using a quick change of pace dribble to gain separation. If he wanted to throw the opponent off, he would sometimes fake a right-footed cross and quickly shift the ball to his left to make a looping carry into the wide left area of the box. There would also be the occasional instance of him letting the pass roll past him near the touchline to built up momentum and bypass the opponent. This made up the majority of his on-ball work when he predominantly played on the left flank with Monaco and Juventus, which worked more often than not because Henry had near elite levels of acceleration alongside solid balance. At Arsenal, though he was given considerably more license to cut inside into the interior to vary his dribbling, there was still something of a learning curve against PL defenders so he resorted more often to using his off-arm for leverage.
Henry’s passing was arguably the aspect of his game that changed the most under Arsène Wenger. When primarily deployed on the left flank, his playmaking was what you would expect from a winger during those days with heavy amounts of crossing while also sprinkling in solo carries into the box for potential intra-box chance creation via cut-backs. He was fine as a crosser but I wouldn’t go as far to say he was above average, although he wasn’t afraid to attempt them with his weaker foot despite the below average touch he had on those. Given the success he had in freezing defenders when faking a crossing attempt to attack the outside, at the very least that uninspiring touch with his crosses didn’t hinder him. When he moved into a more central role in the PL, he traded in a lot of crossing attempts for short distance reverse passes and throughball attempts, which was a largely beneficial trade. It put a greater emphasis on Henry’s ability to recognize passing windows in a split second, and with more reps under his belt, he gradually became comfortable regularly slipping in passes into the box to create quality scoring chances.
There were other layers to Henry as a passer. Despite not having an imposing figure, he was certainly capable of winning aerial duels and even creating the odd chance with a header due to him having impressive leaping ability and timing. He would regularly try to attempt 1–2 combinations to gain access into the halfspace if he couldn’t get inside position through a solo carry. In terms of back to goal play, Henry did have some struggles as he didn’t have the lower body strength that he possessed later on in his career, so he could be nudged off the ball on occasion.
Another area which saw a substantial change for Henry was off-ball movement. Beforehand on the left side, his focus was primarily to maintain width with forward runs mostly occurring along the flank with occasional drifting inwards. Even if he would get on the blindside of his marker and dart into the final third, he wouldn’t immediately make a sharp diagonal cut towards the penalty box, but rather curl towards it from wide. Contrast that with his first season in England and those movements were considerably more varied. He could utilize his speed to get inside position towards the near post from the middle, and having high-end acceleration allowed him to get in behind whether it was a curling run or at a straight line. Henry did have some issues in terms of needlessly overcrowding during sequences in slightly deeper areas, and occasionally his first couple of touches when receiving inside the box would force him to drift slightly from the danger zone which would decrease the shot quality.
And then there was Henry’s finishing, which achieved a certain level of status during his apex that it’s still referenced to today. Even in his earlier years there were flashes of what eventually became his go-to shot; side-footing it into the far corner from the inside-left. At this point though, he did have some drawbacks as a shooter. He lost some placement ability when he wasn’t able to position himself to finesse shots in, as he wasn’t comfortable smashing them in. This was heightened even more with left-footed shots, though at least he didn’t seem to shy away from attempting them. All of this gives even greater credence to Henry’s own admission that he was more of a self-made finisher rather than one who had it come more naturally to him.
Given the tweak in usage that occurred during this three year span for Thierry Henry, he’s an interesting player to examine in terms of impact. When he was more of a left-winger at Monaco and Juventus, he had decent touch as a passer to go along with sub-elite acceleration on-ball to change gears and catch his opponent flat-footed. However, being a couple of rungs below the elite as a crosser impacted his chance creation given that he didn’t spend a lot of time in the interior. Though he would move towards the left halfspace and middle occasionally, his most valuable moments tended to involve him in an on-ball role besting his marker to eventually curl inwards from out wide while hugging the goal line. His movement off the ball followed a relatively similar pattern as well.
In comparison, the version of Henry that we saw in his debut PL season still got to float to the left whenever needed, but he could attempt to dictate play from the central areas more regularly. This inevitably led to alterations with his passing tendencies as it was much more focused on generating “killer” balls into the box and he more than held his own as a playmaker, albeit he wasn’t quite at the level that he reached later on. There was also a noticeable jump in impact with his off-ball runs, as he got to attack the penalty box much more often from a variety of angles. His movement overall was ~very good, albeit the hiccups mentioned earlier in combination with him not being as proficient in creating space for others keeps him from being great in that department.
Henry became a regular in Monaco’s starting XI at the tail-end of the club’s run of success throughout the 1990's, as they finished in the top 3 during his three full seasons from 1996–98, including winning the league in 1997. Their attack domestically followed the same pattern to their overall success, being in the top three during that period and peaking in 1997–98 at 69 goals in a 38 game season. Deep runs into the semifinals of the 1996–97 UEFA Cup and 1997–98 Champions League continued to cement their status as one of the better clubs in Europe at that point. Monaco’s end of season Elo rating in 1998 was at 1815, the 10th highest mark among all European clubs.
Henry certainly was a positive contributor in 97–98. His individual production in that season was quite good for a player of his archetype, as he averaged 0.47 non-penalty goals & assists per 90 minutes. This was juiced up considerably by his scintillating performance in the CL, leading the competition with a NPG per 90 rate of 1.11. His NPGA per 90 of 1.26 in 570 minutes vastly outpaced what he produced in France, which was 0.21 in 1711 league mins. Though it’s not uncommon for players to have a track record of performing better in cup competitions (Kaká and Adriano from the Football Flashbacks series were two examples of this phenomenon), this is such an extreme outlier that it’s hard to put any stock in it. His stint at Juventus in 1999 was better than it’s been historically given credit for, a 0.44 NPGA per 90 rate from a winger was nothing to sneeze at. When taking all of this into account, I think it’s fair to argue that Henry provided good attacking value during these two seasons, with brief flashes of greatness.
By the end of his age 21 season in 1999–2000, it was clear that Henry had made “the leap”. According to FBref, he was 17th in NPGA per 90 among qualified players in the big five leagues. He was once again terrific in Europe, contributing eight goals (7 goals, 1 assist) in the UEFA Cup as Arsenal made it to the final. Their attack in the PL made a notable jump from the previous season’s tally of 59 goals to 73, and by season’s end, Arsenal‘s Elo rating was 6th highest in Europe at 1869. Although it would be reckless to put that impact entirely down to Henry, it is important to note that he was brought in to essentially replace Nicolas Anelka in what turned out to be one of the best examples of player trading over the past 25 years.
So just how good was Thierry Henry during this period? At Monaco and Juventus, he performed at a generally solid level in part due to him credibly creating artificial transitions against a set defense, along with some added value on the margins as a transition threat. However, it’s hard to argue that he was a good playmaker from wide, and his off-ball movement didn’t carry too much impact. Those two areas saw a substantial bump in quality in 1999–2000 and that was reflected in his individual output ranking among the best in Europe. It is fair to point out just how beneficial Wenger’s attacking methods and Arsenal’s squad construction were for Henry, and I do wonder what would’ve happened during these development years if he never got his dream move. When taking into account his elite output in 2000, and being part of strong attacks at Monaco and especially at Arsenal, at this point of his career I think Thierry Henry was a borderline great attacking prospect.
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#1: Patrick Kluivert