LE SPIRO: Expect passionate Henry to succeed
As Thierry Henry prepares to make his managerial bow for Monaco at Strasbourg this weekend, Matthew Spiro examines a unique personality whose passion for football has always set him apart.
It was hardly surprising that Thierry Henry captivated his audience during his first press conference as AS Monaco coach on Wednesday. After all, talking about football in an animated, passionate and insightful fashion is quite simply what he does. It's what he has always done.
Football has been Henry's life ever since he was a boy and his passion and drive have always shone through. After every match he played at junior level with US Palaiseau or Viry-Châtillon, Henry took time to debrief with his team-mates and coaches before heading home for the dreaded analysis session, later that evening, with his demanding father. Henry senior would dissect every goal-scoring chance Thierry had missed, glossing over the actual goals he'd inevitably scored.
Later, at Clairefontaine, Henry would spend his spare time watching games on TV. He would even ask his coaches for video footage of his own games to take to his bedroom. "Thierry wasn't the most talented boy we had," recalls Claude Dusseau, the former INF Clairefontaine academy director. "Nicolas Anelka had more natural talent. But Thierry's attitude and determination set him apart."
Henry's hero is Sonny Anderson. The Brazilian was Monaco's star attacker when 'Titi' joined the principality club aged 15, and Anderson remembers Henry as an unusual character back then. "At the end of each training session, Viktor Ikpeba and I used to do extra work in front of goal," he tells me. "Thierry used to stand on the touchline and watch. He didn't dare ask to join in. One day we told him to come and join us. He asked questions and listened to our advice. He really wanted to learn."
During a 20-year playing career that saw Henry win virtually everything there is to win, that passion bordering on obsession merely intensified. Arsenal and France's record goal-scorer thrived for eight seasons under the watchful, almost paternal gaze of Arsène Wenger. He was perhaps the only person at Arsenal whose football knowledge could compare with that of the manager. "I remember he used to talk to me about players I'd never even heard of," William Gallas says. "He'd tell me about a French third division game he'd just watched and go on about a player that had caught his eye."
When Henry joined Barcelona he was able to strike up a different kind of relationship with Pep Guardiola, who is just six years older than him. He may not have been Barcelona's star player, as he was at Arsenal, but he was more mature and as curious as ever. He lapped up everything Guardiola did on the training ground and was able to benefit from many an hour discussing tactics and management techniques with the Catalan master. Those years will stand him in good stead.
A sign of things to come?
Yet typically when asked to list his managerial mentors by a British reporter this week, the 41-year-old took his interrogator by surprise by citing the old FC Nantes coaches as his first true source of inspiration. "I talk about José Arribas, Jean-Claude Suaudeau and Raynauld Denoueix… I admired the team that won the league [in 1995] with 12 or 13 academy players. That one-touch football, playing attractive football, they were already ahead of the game. For me, Nantes invented transition [-based football]. They were so fast in the transitions, they were so difficult to defend against."
Henry's reference to Nantes could be interpreted as a sign that he too will look to build a dynasty that is centred on young, home-grown talent. Development is of course a strong part of Monaco's identity, and the Russian owners encourage the emergence of young players in the first team. Young tyros like Pietro Pellegri, Jordi Mboula and Willem Geubbels must be thrilled at the prospect of working with the France legend on a daily basis. Yet if Henry is willing - and even keen - to work primarily with youngsters, he'll also want assurances that Monaco will hold on to talent for longer than they did under Leonardo Jardim, whose 2017 title-winning team has been completely dismantled.
First things first
Talk of titles and dynasties will need to be put on hold for now. Monaco are 18th and Henry faces a tough baptism away to high-flying Strasbourg on Saturday. Furthermore, his passion and knowledge do not guarantee he will be a successful manager. Indeed it is extremely unusual for great players to metamorphose in to great managers. There are even fewer examples of strikers becoming successful managers. Henry, though, has never been like everybody else. He is a footballing geek who happens to be blessed with charisma, intelligence and incredible passion. My feeling is he'll be just fine.