Henry frustrated in battle to unlock deeper defences

In the French camp: Arsenal star calls for higher-tempo game from Les Bleus
Click to follow
The Independent Football

The French press have a rather blatant way of revealing which player is dominating their thoughts: they simply ignore every-one else. On Friday, the half-a-dozen players who arrived at the Santo Tirso sports hall near Porto to discuss the previous evening's disappointing 2-2 draw with Croatia were all given a warm enough greeting. But the journalists had only really come for one man.

The French press have a rather blatant way of revealing which player is dominating their thoughts: they simply ignore every-one else. On Friday, the half-a-dozen players who arrived at the Santo Tirso sports hall near Porto to discuss the previous evening's disappointing 2-2 draw with Croatia were all given a warm enough greeting. But the journalists had only really come for one man.

Thierry Henry has long since been the media darling of this team. More so than the quiet Patrick Vieira, and more so than the shy Zinedine Zidane. Henry is the voice and face of Les Bleus. Perhaps this explains why the Arsenal front man's inability to find the net so far in Portugal has fuelled the interest in him still further. The whole of France want to know why the best striker in the world is struggling to conquer Europe. They want to know what has happened to their Titi.

"I'm exactly the same person and athlete that I was when I finished the Premiership season," says England's double Footballer of the Year. "I honestly don't feel any different. I am fresh physically and I am relaxed mentally. The only thing that has changed is the opposition I am facing."

And herein lies the key to Henry's current malaise. For the error-prone and naïve back-fours of the Premiership, read the well-drilled and sometimes cynical defences of the European Championship finals. "It's true that the defenders know exactly what they are doing here in Portugal," says Henry. "As soon as matches kick off, you can see they are going to make sure there is no room to operate in, whatever it takes."

As a result, Henry admits to feeling "annoyed and frustrated". But not dejected. "It's proving difficult," he admits, "and I'm having to attempt different things to try to break the deadlock. People in England know that I'm not a fox in the box, but against Croatia, for example, I felt I had no choice but to push right up. It's very frustrating, but I have to keep going and remain positive."

Has the recent criticism hurt him? "No, because I've always said that being a good striker is not all about scoring goals," Henry says. "People need to realise that without Emile Heskey, there is no Michael Owen. Even when I was banging them in last season I was insisting that there were more important aspects to my game than just finding the back of the net. What people who question me need to look at are my overall performances. Have they noticed that I created the winner for Zizou [Zidane] against Ukraine or won the penalty against England? I am still having an impact."

The France manager, Jacques Santini, concurs with his star striker. "What do you all expect of Henry?" he asks. "That he scores three goals every match? He is being decisive in other ways at the moment and I'm sure the goals will come back soon." Perhaps as early as tomorrow against the vulnerable Swiss? "That would be great," Henry says, "but it's not going to be a case of just turning up. They played well against England for the first 30 minutes, and will make life tough for us, too, especially at the back."

The one area that Henry particularly likes to exploit when playing in League matches is the space behind the defences. The problem at the Euro is that back lines are refusing to hold a high line, preferring instead to sit as deep as possible and form a human wall.

"It's happening in every one of our matches," Henry sighs, "and I'm sure it will continue that way. In my opinion, it's as close to anti-play as you can get, but it's within the rules and we have to learn to live with it."

As defending champions and favourites for the title, the French are clearly worrying their opponents. But is this anything new? "Teams have been careful against us since we won the World Cup in 1998," Henry says, "but I think it's getting worse. Until the game against Ukraine [France's last friendly before the tournament], I can't remember sides setting their stall out to do nothing but defend right from the off."

Henry adds: "Even England seemed happy to let us have all the territory and possession. There were times when they would just hoof the ball upfield and then not even chase it. What can you do in that situation?"

One wonders whether France might benefit from playing at a higher tempo. Arsenal's greatest strength is their ability to put opponents under constant pressure, chiefly by getting the ball up to their front men as quickly as possible. "It's true that we need to pick up the pace and maybe play a bit more direct," Henry admits. "I think we are being slowed down by the lack of challenges. We all have loads of time on the ball, but there is nowhere really to go."

Are France not also suffering because almost every move goes through Zidane? "Listen," Henry says shaking his head, "you can't start trying to blame the best player in the world for our problems. Unlike at Arsenal, we operate with a playmaker with France. Zizou is our No 10, and that means he dictates the play. You can't suddenly change all that." Even by reverting to the 4-2-3-1 formation that France used to win the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship two years later? "Well, that's a question for the coach," Henry says diplomatically.

However, Henry was a lot more forth-coming when asked whether the French camp were still confident of retaining the trophy. "Of course we are upbeat," he says. "In fact, that is the one big positive that we can take out of the first two matches. Two years ago at the World Cup [when France failed to reach the knock-out stages], we felt sorry for ourselves when things didn't go our way. But this time we are continuing to work hard, and that's why we're managing to get the results despite the difficulties we're encountering. No one in this group is going to give up." Least of all the talisman.

Comments