Greatest seasons: Thierry Henry makes Arsenal invincible

FFT's look at the greatest individual seasons in Premier League history continues as Nick Harper recalls 2003/04 – the year Thierry Henry made Arsenal invincible...

Back in the summer of 2004, Thierry Henry pondered one of the great questions of our time: "What is 'va-va-voom'?"

A decade ago, Henry supplemented his income by making adverts for French car manufacturer Renault, and in this particular instalment was shown at home, pondering why a very small chilli pepper has more va-va-voom than a very big chilli pepper. "What is 'va-va-voom'," he plaintively cried, and we all cried with him.

The thing was, Thierry Henry knew what 'va-va-voom' was even if he couldn't quite define it. Put simply, it was that indefinable something that separates the truly disgustingly gifted from the mere mortals. Thierry Henry knew full well that he was packed full of this magnifique substance. The pouting tart sweated va-va-voom from his every pore, and he knew it. We all knew it. Anyone who witnessed the 2003/04 Premier League season certainly knew it.

That was, of course, the season of The Invincibles, the season Arsenal went unbeaten – P38 W26 D12 L0 GF73 GA26 GD+47 Pts90. That was the season everything Thierry Henry touched turned to gold, the season he was Arsenal's most untouchable invincible.

That was the season he was surrounded by the likes of Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp, but that was the season they all played supporting roles as Henry powered them to the title with four games to spare.

Va-va-voom

In that full season, for club and country and in all competitions, he scored 44 times. In the Premier League alone he scored 30, or 41 per cent of Arsenal's 73 goals. Defences knew what to expect and where the threat was coming from – Henry operated primarily down a thin stretch on Arsenal's left – but they were powerless to prevent him scoring almost too many logic-defying goals. That season, Henry was surely the most natural goalscorer on the planet, certainly its most aesthetic.

And yet when he signed with Arsenal in the summer of 1999, Henry spoke of needing to "rediscover the scoring instinct, that automatic reaction in front of goal". It's a stretch to suggest he was damaged goods when he arrived, but his short spell at Juventus had seen Henry shoved out wide as a midfielder, curbing his natural attacking instincts and leaving his confidence in shreds.

He'd arrived at Arsenal as a replacement for the departed Nicolas Anelka, but his performances over his first few months were so underwhelming he was labelled the French Perry Groves. It got that bad. So bad, Henry admitted he had been forced to "literally go back to school and be re-taught everything about the art of striking" before it got any better. But clearly Professor Wenger rewired him well, because by the end of that first season he'd remembered how to score 17 times in the league.

The following season he hit 17 again, then 25, then 27. And by the start of the 2003/04 season, Henry had developed into the complete striker, combining the muscular athleticism with touch, technique and a cold-eyed and clinical instinct.

He scored on the opening day of the season against Everton and again on the final day against Leicester, and struggled to stop scoring in every game in between. But it wasn't just the quantity, including the hat-trick against Liverpool, four against Leeds and more doubles than Jocky Wilson, it was more the pure aesthetic quality of Henry's goals. 

Circa 2003/04, Wenger's Arsenal relied heavily on the Frenchman's ability to break at bewildering pace, twisting the blood of even the best-drilled back-peddling defences. Arsenal were at their most dangerous defending corners, with Henry free to run wild when they won the ball back.

Silky finishing

But he was more than just a goalscorer. In the 2002/03 season he scored 32 in all games and made 23, topping the assists chart by five from Ryan Giggs. The following season, the season of his life, he became more ruthless but still assisted 11 times. The year after, 30 goals, 15 assists.

The peak of Thierry Henry's powers came in the San Siro, in a Champions League game with Inter Milan that Arsenal had no choice but to win, against a team who'd already beaten them 3-0 at Highbury.

Italian football back then was better than it is today, but most teams were built to strangle the life out of the game if it meant they didn't concede. And yet on November 25 2003, Arsenal cut their hosts open at will. Henry scored twice, the second a breathless breakaway, and made two more for good measure in a remarkable 5-1 blitz.

He said he never watched repeats of himself on TV,  but that night he made an exception. "The only game I watched was Inter Milan away," he said. "Because it was special." Indeed it was, because if Europe and the watching world needed telling that at that point in time they were watching the finest footballer in the Premier League and on the planet, Thierry Henry happily obliged.

Of course, Arsenal didn't win the Champions League but they romped to the title, 11 points clear of Chelsea, and Henry was named PFA Players' Player of the Year for the second successive year.

He played on after 2003/04 (and rumour has it he's still playing in some obscure footballing backwater to this day), but it was all downhill after that season. How could it not be, his standards were so high that not even he could match them.

But helpfully, later that season, the Concise Oxford Dictionary moved to include 'va-va-voom' in its updated 2004 edition, finally defining the supposedly indefinable as 'The quality of being exciting, vigorous or attractive'.

Based on the magnificence of Thierry Henry in 2003/04, that didn't even come close.

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