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“You couldn’t have written this script” — a football cliche not remotely appropriate for Thierry Henry’s return to Arsenal. For 68 minutes of Monday’s FA Cup tie at the Emirates, Henry was the main attraction even when he wasn’t on the pitch. His warm-up received as much attention as the activities of the 22 men competing, which seemed like an extravagant support act for the return of Arsenal’s record goal scorer.
The script would have been as follows: 1-0 to Arsenal, Henry to come off the bench and score, preferably with his trademark cool finish from an inside-left position, slid into the far corner with his right boot. It worked out perfectly — to the extent that when Aaron Ramsey blazed a decent chance over the bar in the final minutes, fans almost breathed a sigh of relief that the classic Arsenal scoreline wasn’t to be ruined.
Already Henry’s return has proved worthwhile. Even those who had mixed feelings about it conceded that he couldn’t be worse than Marouane Chamakh, who has scored a single goal in 629 minutes this season. Henry has already equaled that from 22 minutes, so he’s currently around 29 times more prolific than the Moroccan.
On a wider scale, the importance of such moments at the Emirates shouldn’t be overlooked. The stadium remains aesthetically astounding, yet still doesn’t feel like home for many Arsenal fans. The continued “Arsenalization” of the ground — which has included renaming the stands the same names as they were known by at Highbury, and installing a new clock on the Clock End stand — has served its purpose, but it seems a little contrived. Football stadiums get their history from the famous moments they have seen, and along with the win over Barcelona last year, Henry’s goal would be a strong contender for the most popular Emirates moment in the five and a half years since Arsenal moved grounds.
In truth, Henry’s form in recent years has been highly disappointing. He has declined rapidly since Barcelona’s success of 2009, and surprisingly so. The fantastic thing about Henry at his peak was that, while an extremely quick player and superb physically, he combined that athleticism with artistry and imagination. It was therefore quite naturally assumed that, when he lost some of his pace in his older years, he’d drop deeper and play more of a link-up role, perhaps in the mold of his old teammate Dennis Bergkamp.
Henry never really became that player, despite once showing he had the capacity to do so. Two years ago, Barcelona found itself drawing 0-0 to Valencia at halftime. Barca had played very poorly, so they made a change — Henry came off the bench to play as the highest man up the pitch, and Barca switched to a formation that seemed a hybrid of a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-2-4. For once, Barca had a Plan B: Henry played as a central striker, starting high up the pitch then dropping back, holding up the ball, and letting the other three attackers — Pedro Rodriguez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi — motor into space. It worked brilliantly. Messi grabbed a hat trick, but Henry and assistant coach Tito Vilanova — in for Pep Guardiola, who was serving a touchline ban — deserved an equal share of the credit.
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Why Henry hasn’t reproduced that performance is uncertain. It may be a case of motivation — in winning the European Cup with Barcelona in 2009 he essentially completed his trophy haul. That was his final target, and although he stayed another season in Spain, he never looked as determined. His subsequent move to New York was primarily a lifestyle choice rather than a football decision.
This is the explanation that Arsenal fans should be hoping for — Henry clearly retains a great affection for the club; he so obviously wants to contribute to a cause he cares for. If his drop in performance is for physical reasons, he will never recover his ability. If it’s for mental reasons, he can still be of use.
It was appropriate that Henry’s return was against Leeds — he has an excellent record against them. The last time he faced Leeds, he produced one of his best performances in an Arsenal shirt, scoring four goals in a 5-0 victory at Highbury in 2004, after Arsenal had already sealed the title. Among a fine collection of individual goals, the most impudent came from the penalty spot — an audacious “Panenka” clipped over the goalkeeper. Henry celebrated that goal by rushing over to the bench to embrace Jose Antonio Reyes — the two had been perfecting the art of the chipped penalty in training that week.
One day before Henry’s second Arsenal debut, Reyes was also enjoying a return to his favorite club. After a few seasons of underachievement at Atletico Madrid, he has rejoined Sevilla, his hometown club. Some believe he should never have left, or at least stayed a couple more years until he had matured. Andalusians often find it particularly difficult to leave, as shown by Jesus Navas’ serious anxiety problems when away from Seville. Reyes was considered as promising as Cristiano Ronaldo when the two were both Premier League players; his potential was as great as any youngster in Europe when he joined Arsenal. If Henry’s return is triumphant, Reyes’ seems like confirmation he’s failed elsewhere.
Reyes was thrust into action from the start in Sevilla’s trip to Rayo Vallecano on Sunday, used behind frontman Alvaro Negredo in a defensive-minded 4-2-3-1 system. As Rayo took a two-goal lead, Reyes struggled to get involved, but he became an increasingly prominent player in the second half. His touch is still excellent, and he contributed heavily to Sevilla’s consolation goal with a cleverly disguised pass after a short corner. He was moved out to the left later on, then was substituted fifteen minutes from the end after picking up an injury. It wasn’t a second debut of Henry proportions, but it was encouraging.
Henry’s and Reyes’ careers have taken widely different courses, quite evidently, and in a sense they’ve had polar opposite experiences. Henry has won everything there is to win — World Cup, European Championship, European Cups, four league titles, assorted cups and the European Golden Boot. The one thing missing from an otherwise flawless career is a crucial goal in a final. He didn’t get one in the 1998 World Cup final because of Marcel Desailly’s red card; his performance in the 2006 final was superb, especially after halftime, but Fabio Cannavaro always recovered just in time. In FA Cup finals, Henry was also scoreless: In 2001, he was denied by the arm of Stephane Henchoz; in 2002 he got little service; in 2003 Arsenal played poorly; and in 2005 he was out injured, as he was for the 2009 Copa del Rey final. In European Cup finals, he had plenty of chances — two one-on-ones for Arsenal in 2006, and a couple of similar opportunities for Barcelona in 2009. He has scored plenty of important goals in league matches — he had an excellent record against Chelsea and Manchester United and scored in the Clasico — but a goal in a major final always eluded him.
On the other hand, Reyes has been underwhelming at every club he’s played for, yet has always scored important goals; he always seems to raise his performance at important moments. For Arsenal, he scored an equalizer away at Portsmouth that preserved the historic unbeaten run with three matches to go in 2003-04. At Real Madrid, he effectively won the league title with two excellent goals on the final day. At Atletico, he scored in the Super Cup final to secure a 2-1 win over Inter in 2010, and even when on loan at Benfica in 2007-08, he performed when it mattered most. The club came a distant third place in the Portuguese league — all it had to play for was the derbies against Sporting, and Reyes scored in both — despite scoring only four times all season.
That says a lot about Reyes’ mentality: When he’s interested, he can be lethal, but it’s difficult to get him motivated. Perhaps Henry’s focus has similarly slipped in recent years. He was never loved at Barcelona or New York as much as he is in North London, and he’s a player who needs warmth and affection. All the talent in the world is useless without commitment — both players want to play for a cause they believe in — and now they have that opportunity once again.