How 'washed-up' Henry achieved his brilliant Barça revival
Thierry Henry’s time at Arsenal will always be considered his peak, but in the wake of the Gunners legend’s decision to retire, it is worth taking time to recall his last truly great season as a footballer; an individual season not talked about nearly enough, and certainly not to the degree of his exploits in north London.
If the Invincibles era was Henry’s Highway to Hell, then the treble-winning campaign at Barcelona was his Back In Black, a triumphant return to form that defied critics and proved that in tricky circumstances, the true greats deliver their best.
The two campaigns that preceded the 2008/09 season were not vintage ones for Henry. The Frenchman’s decision to prolong his Arsenal career a year longer than he should have was met with fitness troubles and a reduced output in front of goal.
When he finally joined Barcelona in 2007, Henry walked straight into the eye of a storm; the dying days of Frank Rijkaard’s era at the Catalan club. Hardly the ideal circumstances in which to adjust to a new country.
While he still managed to finish as Barcelona’s top scorer in his first year at the Camp Nou, critics suggested that 12 league goals did not provide great value for €24 million.
The sentiment that Henry was past it began to grow – that he would never again be a decisive player for an elite-level club... that Arsenal had sold Barça a dud. Criticised and far away from his young daughter who continued to live in London, the Frenchman may never have adapted to Spain had his new manager not intervened. Early in his tenure in charge of the Barcelona first team, Pep Guardiola sensed that something was wrong with the veteran, and quietly invited him to a private meeting. The pair talked for hours over a coffee about family life and issues away from football.
Whatever Guardiola said worked. In his second season at Barça, Henry rediscovered his youth, rolling back the years and forming an integral part of a lethal trident with Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi. A standout two-goal display in the Santiago Bernabeu is perhaps best remembered, after the forward tore Sergio Ramos to shreds and proved that he still had pace to burn. But there were several other noteworthy performances in which his class proved the difference.
A hat-trick against Valencia in December 2008 springs to mind. Henry had already scored six goals across the league and Champions League in the build-up to the fixture, but against Los Che he was unplayable, harking back to the heady Highbury days of old. A Valencia side still blessed with the talents of Juan Mata, David Villa, Joaquin, Ruben Baraja and David Albelda were dismantled. Henry was the key destroyer.
His first goal, 19 minutes after kick-off, was vintage Henry. Latching on to a dinked pass over the top with a blistering run inside the opposition full-back, he allowed the ball to bounce once before prodding it past Renan. His second, a smart first-time finish inside the area, came less than 10 minutes later. The hat-trick was completed with a poacher’s goal in the second half, the Frenchman using a rare opportunity in the middle of the forward line to show off his nose for finding space in the box.
The win left Barça six points clear at the top of La Liga, and Henry’s treble in the absence of a suspended Eto’o showed that he could be relied upon to step up and produce his best football when Guardiola needed it most. He would prove that again two months later in Europe by nabbing an important away goal at the Stade de Gerland against Lyon. His diving header from a Rafael Marquez corner earned Barcelona a draw that was more than they deserved from a poor last 16 showing.
In the return fixture at the Camp Nou he was even more decisive. Henry wasn’t in the mood for making this shot at the elusive Champions League trophy any more complicated than it needed to be, scoring a brace inside 30 minutes. Like the Valencia game, his opener came from a sharp run onto a ball over the top, and his second from inside the opposition area. Though he couldn’t complete his hat-trick this time, he did set up Eto’o for the fourth goal with a neat pass after coming inside off the left flank.
It wasn’t Henry’s last great European showing for Barça that season. When Bayern Munich came to the Camp Nou for the Champions League quarter-finals in April he was lethal once again. As was by then habitual, the Frenchman started brightly, rounding Hans-Jörg Butt early on but not quite finding the finish. It was a warning of things to come. In the 38th minute he sucked in Massimo Oddo by slowing down to walking pace, before putting his foot on the accelerator, leaving the Italian for dead, then teeing up Messi with a left-footed cross. Before the half-time whistle blew he'd scored one of his own with a low, accurate right-footed shot that gave Butt no chance. It was a hell of a statement of intent from Barcelona. Four goals past Bayern in less than 45 minutes, and Henry was directly involved in half of them.
That European campaign would finish with Barcelona defeating Manchester United 2-0 in Rome to complete their treble, and Henry finally claiming the major trophy that had eluded him at Arsenal. The Achilles problems that had looked certain to keep the forward out of the trip to the Stadio Olimpico played a part in preventing him from reproducing the electric form he had delivered in the previous eight months.
That injury-induced dip arrived just when many eyes had finally woken up to Barça’s brilliance, so it is perhaps no surprise that the Frenchman’s part in their historic treble can sometimes be underappreciated by international observers. Ask any Catalan who watched the Blaugrana closely over the course of the season, however, and they will tell you just how good he was. At the age of 31, Henry produced 26 goals and 11 assists from the left wing, and showed not only intelligence but also humility in adapting to the demands of a less-favoured position for the greater benefit of his team. His reward was a prime place in Barcelona history. Arsenal aren’t the only club who have much to thank him for.