Henry's complete blend of attacking arts creates the world's best striker

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The Independent Football

Half-time at Highbury, Good Friday. Arsenal, newly dismissed from the FA Cup and Champions' League, trail Liverpool 2-1 in the Premiership. With the season apparently unravelling, their supporters stumble around beneath the stands, fretfully phoning friends and family for comfort in what resembles a mass counselling session.

Four minutes after the restart, Arsenal are level. A further 60 seconds and the faithful wonder how their faith ever faltered. Thierry Henry receives the ball 35 yards from goal and embarks on a crazily ambitious slalom through the Liverpool defence. He leaves Dietmar Hamann standing. Jamie Carragher, in the phrase of one of Fleet Street's finest, is "sent out for a pint of milk" before colliding with Igor Biscan.

Henry, oblivious to the comic disarray, is suddenly faced by Jerzy Dudek. He beats him nonchalantly. If this goal, his second, evokes Jimmy Greaves in his casual-ruthless pomp, Henry's hat-trick goal, bludgeoned from far outside the penalty area, could be vintage Bobby Charlton.

"Is he the best striker in the world?" Gérard Houllier is asked after Arsenal's cathartic 4-2 win. He does not disagree. From the manager of Michael Owen, it is an admission as well as an accolade.

For the consummate team player who also happens to be the most conspicuous individual talent in English football, the honour that will mean more than any other is the championship medal his scoring feats have done so much to secure.

The rest are hardly to be sniffed at. On Sunday, within hours of helping Arsenal clinch the title at Tottenham, he was again named Player of the Year by his fellow professionals. He is also a shoe-in to retain the football writers' prestigious Footballer of the Year statuette and was second to his France team-mate Zinedine Zidane in Fifa's world poll.

When Zidane's club, Real Madrid, coveted him, Henry laughed off the idea. Chelsea's readiness to splash £50m on him received the same response. "I have my paradise at Highbury," he argued. He could just as easily have said Hampstead. There he shares a £6m home with his wife, the English model Nicole Merry. They met when they appeared together in the TV advert for Renault that provided the "Va Va Voom" slogan which so perfectly encapsulates his seemingly effortless blend of speed and style.

Yet the man with everything once had so little that he had to share a pair of football boots. He was born and bred in the working-class Parisian suburb of Les Ulis, the son of poor migrants from the French-Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. His father Antoine, aka Tony, was a striker in the local leagues and they took turns with his size 12s. Pace was in the genes; Antoine's brother had been a 400 metres hurdler.

"Titi", as Henry was nicknamed, developed his speed, self-control and survival instincts with a junior club called Palaiseau. According to his father, he was up against Africans who, because they had no birth certificates, claimed to be years younger than they were. Once, Henry Snr ran on to protest at the lack of protection from the referee. A fight ensued. The match was abandoned. When it was re-staged, Henry took cool revenge, scoring two in a 2-1 win.

In 1990, at 13, he became attached to Monaco, where he first came under the influence of the coach he has come to call his "spiritual father", Arsène Wenger. Three years later he turned professional, Wenger giving him a debut at 17.

Houllier also had a part in his progress. Whereas Monaco regarded him as a winger, the French FA's then director of coaching played him down the centre, through the channels and anywhere Henry's nose for goal took him. "I knew Thierry could be special from the first time I played him in the Under-17 national team," he said. "He had speed and technique, power and finesse. Unusual combinations."

Having established himself at Monaco - he made the full national team at 20 and scored three times in Les Bleus' World Cup triumphant campaign of 1998 - he claimed to be disillusioned by the lack of atmosphere at the poorly supported club, who had by that time sacked Wenger. Juventus paid £10.5m but he stayed only eight months. "I got no pleasure from playing in Turin. I had to do lots of defensive work and there were some really dull games. No action, no attacking play."

When he was reunited with his mentor, for a similar fee in the summer of 1999, Arsenal's fabled back four were still going strong and the "boring, boring" image was still lazily being trotted out. There were few immediate signs that Henry would shortly render such criticisms risible. The writer and Highbury devotee Nick Hornby saw his early performances as "hopeless... my brother reckoned we'd spent our record fee on the French Perry Groves".

However, he felt comfortable in a dressing-room that already housed Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and would soon incorporate Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord. Once Nicolas Anelka had flounced off to Madrid, Henry began learning the role of centre-forward for which he was born. With his long, powerful limbs and elegant stride, allied to the dribbling skill he honed while playing wide, and wonderfully composed finishing, he blossomed into the most dangerous attacker in Europe.

This season there has been no better striker on the planet, and, at 26, he is probably not even at the peak of his powers. This is a worrying prospect for England, France's first opponents in the European Championship finals in June, and for Arsenal's rivals at home and abroad.

Louis Saha, the French striker with Manchester United, spoke recently about why Henry was a "more complete" striker than Ruud van Nistelrooy. "Ruud's game is all about finishing. He never scores from outside the 18-yard area and doesn't take much part in the collective play," he said before realising, too late, that his perceptive analysis would be misrepresented as an attack on his club-mate.

United, incidentally, sent their leading scout, Les Kershaw, to watch the teenaged Henry. "He had phenomenal pace," Kershaw later said, somewhat sheepishly, "but he looked raw." And so he was in some respects, even as recently as 2002. When France made a wretched hash of defending their World Cup, he was sent off for an ill-judged challenge on Uruguay's Marcelo Romero. Four years earlier he had been fined by Uefa for making an illegal pre-contract deal with Real Madrid.

Arsenal's 5-1 win at Internazionale last autumn was perhaps the ultimate proof of the maturing of Henry's game (although he still feels his heading could be better for one who stands 6ft 2in). After he scored two and made two more, one Italian paper printed Edvard Munch's The Scream to sum up their shock.

Wenger offered a typically calm assessment: "Usually an attacker is either a finisher or a provider. Thierry is both." The "assist" has no real credibility in football statistics, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Henry's colleagues maintain he values his as much as his goals. It is an aspect of the game that he has absorbed at Highbury. Born in Paris, you could say, but made in London.

A week after his triple flourish re-awoke Arsenal against Liverpool, he went one better against Leeds, his fourth goal in a 5-0 win taking him to 150 for the club, 35 behind Ian Wright's record. It was as if his aura mesmerised opponents as he waltzed through the studs and elbows for another solo goal. Even his penalty oozed class, chipped past Paul Robinson with that trademark mixture of laid-back and lethal.

"How do you stop Thierry Henry?" Eddie Gray, Leeds' acting manager, was asked. "Punch him and knock him out," came the reply. England should be advised that they have to catch him first.

GUNNERS' TARGETS WHERE ARSENAL WILL LOOK TO IMPROVE

GOALKEEPER

Jens Lehmann signed his P45 when his push on Robbie Keane confirmed season-long doubts about his temperament. The German will be replaced sooner rather than later, if Arsenal can find a better option. The leading target is Antii Niemi, Southampton's Finnish 'keeper, though he is under contract and professes to be happy at St Mary's. Two Frenchmen, Sebastian Frey, of Parma, and Mikael Landreau of Nantes, are also under review.

RIGHT-BACK

Unless a player like Real Madrid's Michel Salgado becomes available, Lauren should keep his place at right-back but there is no cover for him. Kolo Touré had to deputise this year. Wenger appears not to believe either Justin Hoyte or Nicky Nicolau are ready to step up from the reserves so he may finally launch a long-forecast move for Tottenham's Stephen Carr.

CENTRAL DEFENCE

With the probable retirement of Martin Keown, Wenger's only experienced cover in central defence is Pascal Cygan who has not proved a success. Young Swiss Phillipe Senderos was signed as a long-term recruit but has been injured all season. If funds permit Wenger may thus try to hi-jack Philippe Mexes' projected move from Auxerre to Liverpool or bid for PSV Eindhoven's Kevin Hofland.

RIGHT MIDFIELDER

Freddie Ljungberg has been a disappointment this season which may provide an opportunity for Jermaine Pennant. The England under-21 international returns after an impressive season on loan at Leeds United. Then there is always David Beckham. But he lacks the pace to fit in with Wenger's playing philosophy.

STRIKER

Sylvain Wiltord and Kanu are set to leave the club. Francis Jeffers, who returns from a season-long loan to Everton, will be off-loaded if a buyer can be found. With Jose Antonio Reyes having joined the club, and Dennis Bergkamp set to renew for another year, Wenger feels he can let this trio go as Robin van Persie, of Feyenoord, has been lined up to join Arsenal for £4m.

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