Why Thierry Henry remains the defining player of the Premier League era
Sergio Aguero is a remorseless goalscoring machine. In 260 Premier League appearances he has scored 180 goals, more than any other foreign player in the competition’s history. He overtook Thierry Henry with a hat-trick against Aston Villa in January, his 12th since joining Manchester City nine years ago, eclipsing Alan Shearer’s record in the process.
By most metrics, Aguero is perhaps the best striker the Premier League has ever seen, powering City to four titles and multiple domestic trophies with his insatiable appetite for goals. However, despite recently leaving Henry in the shade, the former Arsenal man remains a far more complete and influential footballer.
Henry is the defining player in Premier League history. He was not only extremely gifted – slick, fast and skilful – but someone whose unique approach shaped the next generation of strikers. Nobody else played quite like him when he first came to England, now there are plenty who possess similar traits and tendencies.
He changed football for the better. His style of play felt oddly futuristic and redefined traditional notions of what a striker could be, spawning numerous imitators. Henry racked up an incredible number of goals and assists, laying on plenty of chances for others as the star man in an attack-minded Arsenal team.
Rather than staying central and waiting for opportunities to come his way, he would drift out to the left and create them for himself. Henry cut inside and curled the ball into the far corner so often that it became his trademark finish. Defenders knew what he wanted to do but were often powerless to stop him. He was too quick, too tricky and too decisive.
It wasn’t always this way. Henry was thrilling to watch but only sporadically effective at Monaco and Juventus. This was partly due to his lack of experience, and also the tendency for him to be used out wide as a traditional winger. He had always wanted to be a striker but he didn’t fit the established mould. It was only once he joined Arsenal that he started playing there on a regular basis.
In Arsene Wenger, he found a kindred spirit, someone keen to revolutionise the way football had typically been played, particularly in England. Straight lines, long balls and competitive spirit had been the game’s dominant tactical features, but fluidity was the future, and Henry helped to realise Wenger’s breathtaking new vision.
Henry had never reached double figures in the league before joining Arsenal, yet managed it every year during his time in England, even when missing half of his final season at the club through injury. At his best, he was virtually unstoppable. He eased up through the gears, leaving opponents trailing in his wake on the way to goal.
Strikers were stereotypically self-centred and lacking in creativity, focused solely on finishing chances rather than generating them, but Henry changed that. He was remarkably complete, adding 20 assists to his 24 goals in the 2002-03 season. Although Arsenal missed out on the title, the stage was set for the Invincibles.
The scale of Henry’s influence during this period can be felt in the way that so many of the next generation play. People like Marcus Rashford, Kylian Mbappe and Anthony Martial grew up watching him and exhibit many of the same qualities. They are all strikers who are comfortable drifting into space, carrying the ball at speed and operating out wide or through the middle.
This was the Henry template. He was wonderfully versatile and made as many telling contributions outside the confines of the area as he did inside. He showed that strikers didn’t have to be burly target men or nippy poachers, they could be forwards in the broadest sense – free to roam, link-up play and make things happen rather than simply occupy the centre-halves.
Henry rewrote the rule book. His rise to prominence was part of a wider trend towards universality – players with transferable skills rather than specialists. The old-fashioned penalty box predator, who was little more than a pure finisher, started to fall out of favour and much more is now required of a striker at the top level.
Sergio Aguero remains something of a throwback in contrast. A world-class player but one with clearer limitations. He's an excellent goalscorer deserving of great acclaim, but not a transformational one like Henry. Aguero is a striker of brutal efficiency – all substance, very little style. Henry had both in abundance.
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