Football: Henry's mix of power and pace

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST thing you notice about him, the first thing people have always noticed about him, is his pace. Even by the ever-quickening standards of modern footballers he is lightning fast and always has been - as a youngster, a career as a sprinter beckoned before football lured him away.

But Thierry Henry is not just quick, he has a few tricks as well.

Against Derby last week, in his first start in England, he literally walked past one defender, dropping a shoulder here, shaking a hip there, all the time threatening to explode into a run, until, suddenly, his mesmerised opponent was on the floor and Henry was advancing on another.

There are other qualities. Kevin Ball, the Sunderland captain who played against him last week, yesterday picked out his technique. Matthew Upson, the young Arsenal defender who trains with him every day, noted his strength and two-footedness.

The Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, speaking after training yesterday, said: "He has pace, power, and size. He is very quick, but he also has tricks and a lot of body power." His finishing, so far, has been dreadful but Wenger added: "You should see him in training today; his finishing is improving all the time. You cannot say he is a bad technical finisher because he has scored goals in the past. He just needs a goal. I don't want it to become a psychological block."

That goal might come tomorrow, against Manchester United at Highbury.

Henry will play, the question is where: on the right flank, the left wing, or through the centre? It may well be decided by who else is fit, for though Wenger sees him in the long term as a centre-forward, he can play with equal facility anywhere in the forward line. "He gives us a lot of options. He can play left, right, or up front. But such a physique should not be pushed on the flanks. We must at least try to give him a central position. With the ball at his feet he can make anything possible."

Maybe it is his versatility which has slowed the Frenchman's progress, for he has only hinted at fulfilling the potential of his youth. This may seem a strange thing to say of a player who, though only 22 last Tuesday, has cost pounds 15m in transfer fees, played in the French, Italian and English leagues, been part of a World Cup-winning squad and won the French title but, given his initial impact, it may be true.

Discovered playing for Ulls, a small team in the suburbs of Paris, he made his debut for Monaco two weeks after his 17th birthday. Two years later he was voted French Young Footballer of the Year and almost signed for Real Madrid (more of that later). By 1997 he was a regular in Monaco's championship-winning side, a successful captain of France's Under-18s and, in the October, shortly after his 20th birthday, he made his international debut.

He went on to keep Nicolas Anelka out of the World Cup 22 but then things turned sour. Beginning the tournament in the team, and scoring twice against South Africa, his role changed to that of a substitute, only to be kept on the bench for the final, having featured in the previous six matches.

He moved to Juventus in January of this year for a reported pounds 5m, but was seen as a winger and failed to secure a regular place. He was then dropped from the French squad after 11 caps.

A case of burn-out and premature acclamation? Not according to Gerard Houllier, who coached him in the French Under-17 and Under-18 national teams. Houllier, now manager of Liverpool, believes this is a classic case of: "form is temporary, class is permanent".

"I'm not surprised he had a dip," Houllier said yesterday. "He'd not had a holiday for three years. In 1996 he played in the European Under- 18 Championships; in 1997 he played in Malaysia in the Under-18 World Championships; in 1998 he played in the World Cup. After so much repetition of competition there is bound to be a dip. The same applies to Michael Owen.

"Henry still has very high potential and can become a very good player."

Wenger certainly believes so. He had pursued Henry for more than a year, almost securing him before France 98, but only to balk when Monaco doubled his pounds 4m value on the back of his World Cup performances. Henry was quoted then, and in November, saying that he wanted to join Arsenal but eventually went to Italy, only to end up at Highbury for a figure reported to be pounds 10.5m but actually nearer pounds 9m.

It is still a club record but represents less than half the fee received for Anelka. While not bought just to replace his close friend - Davor Suker fulfils part of the equation - he is an appropriate alternative.

He, too, grew up in a rough Parisian banlieu, "a poor and violent" suburb according to one local expert. He was also developed through the French academy created by Houllier - which took him in at the age of 13. Henry, too, has a history of "agent trouble".

That was in the winter of 1996-97 when he somehow acquired three agents and two clubs: Monaco, for whom he was playing, and Real Madrid, who claimed to have signed him on a pre-contract. The upshot was a Fifa investigation and fines for Madrid and Henry, who was ordered to stay with Monaco.

Henry also has two brothers but, unlike Claude and Didier Anelka, they are not expected to join their sibling in the capital nor to destabilise him. Henry is regarded as more grown-up, his early maturity leading Houllier to make him national Under-18 captain despite his being a striker.

Wenger, who gave Henry his debut at Monaco, said: "He has settled well. He is a very happy boy. He works hard in training, and his movement and understanding of his team-mates improves every day."

Henry himself said: "Nicolas is his own man, he has his life to lead and I have mine. I know the manager, he knows me, and I'm very proud to come here. I have wanted to play here for a long time."

As David O'Leary noted last week, this is a standard platitude among foreign players but in Henry's case it appears to be true. His pleasure at being at Highbury appears to be reciprocated by the Arsenal fans who will hope, tomorrow, to see Henry prove his star is once more in the ascendant.