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17th Aug 2015

Thierry Henry: The smooth Frenchman who broke Arsene Wenger’s heart

Kevin Beirne

Sixteen years ago, Arsene Wenger made possibly the most important signing of the Premier League era when he paid £11m for a young French winger from Juventus.

Wenger would then help turn that young winger into one of the most devastating finishers in world football, as he went on to become Arsenal’s record goalscorer.

In case you haven’t already guessed by now, that man was Thierry Henry – the most influential player in Arsenal’s modern history.

It’s not exactly an original thought to say Arsenal are missing a striker of Henry’s standard. In fact, Henry himself has leveled such criticism at his former club on multiple occasions. But look just at Henry’s influence on the field of play is to misunderstand his legacy.

LONDON - MAY 07:  Thierry Henry of Arsenal during the Barclays Premiership match between Arsenal and Wigan Athletic at Highbury on May 7, 2006 in London, England.  The match was the last to be played at Highbury after 93 years, as next season Arsenal will kick off nearby at the new Emirates Stadium.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

When Henry signed for Arsenal in 1999, he was relatively unknown. When he left at the end of the 2006/07 season, it was the most damaging moment of Arsene Wenger’s managerial career.

Up until that point, players had for the most part left Arsenal on terms that suited Wenger. Tony Adams retired as a Gunner, David Seaman was let go on a free transfer to Manchester City, and Patrick Vieira was shipped off to Juventus to allow Cesc Fabregas room to grow.

Even when Nicolas Anelka – the very man Henry was brought in to replace – orchestrated a move to Real Madrid, it was seen as Wenger clearing out a toxic player whose ego was more trouble than it was worth. Ashley Cole’s transfer to Chelsea evoked a similar reaction after his wage demands were made public.

Even when questions were raised following the sales of players like Marc Overmars, Wenger would emphatically answer his critics by signing players like Robert Pires who were arguably even better than the men they replaced.

VIGO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 24:  Robert Pires of Arsenal (R) celebrates scoring their third goal with Thierry Henry during the UEFA Champions League match between Celta Vigo and Arsenal at Balaidos Stadium on February 24, 2004 in Vigo, Spain.  (Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images)

But when Henry left Arsenal, he took something intangible with him. Unlike those who left before him, Henry’s move to Barcelona was years in the making – and perhaps he would have left sooner had Barcelona not beaten Arsenal in the 2005/06 Champions League final.

When he finally left for the Nou Camp it was obvious to everyone that this was Henry’s decision, not Wenger’s.

Since then, Wenger has seen two club captains – Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie – force moves away from the Emirates in embarrassing and drawn out sagas.

He has also had to endure Manchester City poaching promising talents like Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Emmannuel Adebayor, while perhaps the most bizarre of all of these moves came when Alex Song decided he was bigger than the club and strong-armed his way into a Barca move.


Henry’s departure marked Arsenal’s transformation into a selling club – a moniker which they have only recently begun to shake off.

But even Arsenal’s three marquee signings of the past three summers – Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech – have been surplus to requirements at their previous teams rather than young stars looking to make a step up.

For all the brilliance Henry brought on the pitch, his departure left a gaping hole in the club that has yet to be filled. On a basic level, Arsenal no longer have someone who can intimidate defences purely through his ability to create goals from nowhere.

But it’s about more than the gap he left on the field. He hurt Arsene Wenger in a way that no one else had. It’s no coincidence that Arsenal teams since then have lacked that cutting edge. No other team has their “mental strength” questioned as often as the Gunners.

Two FA Cups in two years will help Arsenal – and Wenger – build up some confidence again, but the first cut is the deepest and the scars of Henry’s departure remain.