Year Zero: the season that made Thierry Henry at Arsenal (1999/2000)
Thierry Henry knew something needed to change. His decision was made – that morning he would go into Arsene Wenger’s office at London Colney and tell his manager that he didn’t want to be a striker anymore.
Nobody would have minded anyway; not the fans who’d been disappointed with the 22-year-old’s first months at Arsenal, and least of all Henry himself, his confidence shot to bits after a tough start to life in north London. Patrick Vieira was teasing him about his profligacy, but deep down it hurt.
Besides: he was a winger, wasn’t he? Coltish, graceful, direct – it suited his style. It was where he’d played for Monaco with success; for France at the 1998 World Cup – where he top scored for his country – and then for Juventus. That’s just how everyone knew him, and how he too recognised himself.
But Henry didn’t go into Wenger’s office that day, and never told him that he didn’t want to be a striker anymore. By the time he arrived for training he’d changed his mind. Let’s give this another try, he thought.
Arsene always knew best. When he signed Henry from Juventus for a club record £11m in August 1999, it was always with the intention of him playing up front eventually.
Wenger had told Henry that he wanted to sign him while on a flight from Italy to Paris a few months earlier, an apparently chance meeting between the pair in which the bespectacled Gunners boss is said to have reminded the youngster: “You are wasting your time on the wing. You are a No.9.”
He’d actually wanted to snare Henry before he joined Juventus, but the Italian side had deeper pockets. The player called Wenger 30 minutes before signing on the dotted line, by which point it was too late to intervene.
His old manager had always been the man to recognise Henry's potential at Monaco, where Wenger handed a barely 17-year-old his senior debut, only to be sacked just 17 days later for the team’s poor start to the 1994/95 season.
Henry had been a prolific striker at youth level, where goals came easily at a time when, in his words, he felt like “a real striker”. But he was still considered too raw to inflict the same damage in the first team. Monaco also had the deadly Brazilian Sonny Anderson to lead their line back then, so Henry spent his early days playing on the left wing where his best attributes could be exploited. Gradually, his natural position had become unnatural.
By the time he arrived at Arsenal, though, two weeks before his 22nd birthday, Henry had more than just a challenging position switch to contend with. The Gunners were reeling from the unscrupulous exit of Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid for £23m, and needed to replace their top scorer who’d been only a goal away from sharing the Premier League Golden Boot in 1998/99.
Arsenal had signed France ‘98 hero Davor Suker for £3.5m the day before Henry’s arrival, but the Croatian was neither young nor French. It was Henry, therefore, who faced comparisons with Anelka from the off – he’d been a year ahead of his compatriot at Clairefontaine, though considered slightly less talented, and the pair were friends despite Anelka having been partly responsible for Henry’s demotion to France’s under-21 squad by this point.
Henry was unperturbed by the links in early interviews; Wenger, meanwhile, was bullish in a thinly veiled dig at Anelka. “If you don’t want comparisons you should stay at home,” noted the Gunners chief. “If you want to be a big player, you go out and show it on the pitch. He has the qualities to do as well as Nicolas. Thierry is much more of an extrovert than Nicolas was. He is a team player who will work hard for the whole team.”
But the new star was already arriving at Highbury short of confidence. Henry’s time at Juventus was no raging success, but his struggles in Turin are certainly overblown; for starters he’d only joined in mid-January 1999, when the Old Lady were 10th in Serie A and desperately struggling for goals – just 18 scored in 17 matches. He’d signed under Marcello Lippi, but the coach was on his way out three weeks later.
Henry started 12 of the 14 games he was available for under new boss Carlo Ancelotti. “And in the last five or six, I either scored or set up a goal,” he later told FourFourTwo. “One or the other. It’s true that it took me a few games to get used to the system, because we played a 3-5-2 I wasn’t used to, but I soon adapted and started to play well.”
Expectations were high for a reason, though: despite his tender years, Henry had already played in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup and Champions League, won Ligue 1, plus the World Cup with France (though he didn’t get on in the final thanks to Marcel Desailly’s sending-off).