Thierry Henry on what makes a great striker, art of finishing and football’s tactical evolution
During a visit to India, Firstpost caught up with Thierry Henry and he spoke about all things football, from the art of finishing to the evolution of strikers.
"Thierry Henry could take the ball in the middle of park and score a goal that no one else in the world could score." Arsene Wenger's description of Thierry Henry could be the best to describe the phenomenon that he was. When the ball was at his feet, the players around him mattered little. It wasn't just his pace and agility that made him untouchable for defenders, but also his technique and vision, which made him a genius. His footballing skills even made his fiercest competitors turn into his greatest admirers.
"As a football fan, I enjoy watching Henry, and some of the goals he scored were frightening. He’s one of those players where you know what he’s going to do but you just can’t stop it. He’s so quick, so strong and so confident. It feels like every game he’s going to score a goal." Ryan Giggs, who was involved in one of the most intense rivalries Henry was part of, had said, acknowledging the striker's class.
Many predators have come and gone since Henry ran the show in Europe, but few have managed to match his class. There were strikers, there were good strikers and then there was Henry. Almost two years after his retirement, Henry is trying his wits at punditry with Sky Sports and has also plunged into a new journey as second assistant manager of the Belgium football team. During his promotional visit to India, Firstpost caught up with him during a round table organised by Puma and he spoke about all things football, from the art of finishing to the evolution of strikers, and what separates great forwards from the good ones.
Here are some excerpts from the interaction.
You are one of the greatest strikers football has seen. What separates a great striker from a good striker?
Henry: Oh! A lot of stuff. A lot. It’s not so much about what you can do and what you can't because at one point on a certain level, a lot of strikers can finish a certain way. The difference is, what do you see? How do you execute it? How calm can you be? What’s difficult in the game is it’s never the same picture that you see. I look at you and if I turn, the defender is not in the same position. So when I go and drop and ask for the ball, what do I see? How can I analyse what’s in front of me really quickly? When the ball is travelling, can you already see what you’re going to do while you’re looking at the ball? So when you can already picture the goal that you are going to score, when the ball comes you already know what you’re going to do.
You have a lot of strikers that are thinking about how they’re going to score while they’re trying to score (and not before). Most of the times, I used to try to look at the ball and when I’m looking at that ball, I’m trying to see who is moving where and how to make sure I can plan my goal. Sometime it’s instinct. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to lie — sometimes it’s an instinctive finish. But most of the times, you see a lot of strikers in one-on-one situations or when the ball is travelling, losing their way in what they’re trying to do because they’re thinking about it while they are doing it. You need to think about it (visualise the goal) before you do it and obviously having the quality to apply the finishing touch is also something that comes into the equation. Most times it’s about how quick your brain can react. When you arrive at a certain level, the quality is there.
People can jump the same way, speed maybe not there, but (if you're good with your) left foot-right foot movement and if you’re a good striker, you should have that ability to turn yourself into a great one. It’s about vision, it’s about how quick do you react and how quick your brain can be in certain situations. I know it sounds easy when you hear it, but it’s not that easy on the field. Once you can manage to do that — plan before, see before, then you will execute it better.
You started out as a winger and then made a transition to a striker. What were the challenges you faced in doing so? This season Alexis Sanchez is playing as a striker but he too is primarily a winger. How do you compare his challenges today with yours?
Henry: It’s difficult to compare players, I don’t like to compare players. Every player is up there on his own game. The game has evolved. Personally I’ve always said that Sanchez could be an option to play as a center forward. He’s finally playing in that position. He does it for Chile, so it’s not something he doesn’t know. At Udinese too, he played at that position and did ever so well.
When you have a guy like that playing as a No 9 — the way he puts pressure, the way he moves, his vision for the ball — it creates a lot of goals for Ozil. Mesut is scoring a lot of goals because of the movement of Sanchez. He can now go and make that run as a No 10 because the striker is moving. Theo (Walcott) is also scoring a lot of goals because of that as there’s natural movement that they are creating. I think he is dealing with it pretty well. I feel the reason why Arsenal is doing so well this season is because Alexis Sanchez is playing up there (in front) and making all that movement and creating space for others.
And what are the challenges you faced while making the transition?
Henry: One thing that I know is, there was no transition. There was just the need to score. I started as a striker when I was young. When Arsene (Wenger) left Monaco, they put me on the wings. I went to World Cups playing as a winger. Then when I arrived at Arsenal, I played as a striker and then when I went to Barcelona, I played as a winger again. You need to be versatile and know how to play in different positions as it helps you to play in different systems and under different managers. At times, it wasn’t easy as you need to learn how to play in those positions. But if you are clever enough to learn how to play on the right, on the left, and in the center, it’s a big plus for you as from one option, you suddenly have three options. For me it worked out well.
Earlier we saw teams playing with two strikers, but recently teams have moved on from that. Also we don't see poachers like Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Fillipo Inzaghi. We don't see such strikers very often these days. Has the role of a striker changed over the last decade?
Henry: Yeah, but I think not just box players, the role of the No 9 has changed. If you go back to the 80s and early 90s, the striker wasn’t really getting involved in the build-up. The ball went to the wingers, or your No 10. Back in the day, every team had a proper No 10 and a No 9, so you could play freely with the help of your No 10 or your wingers (setting the build-up), and the No 9 will appear in the box at the end. That’s a cliche but obviously, the No 9 can play too. However, now in the build-ups, most of the times, you are trying to reach your strikers first, then you play off your strikers and then the wingers come along.
Now you have the No 10’s scoring goals instead of assisting a bit more. It did change in a way, but the game always evolves and it’s always good because it keeps us on our toes and managers find different tactics. Now, strikers are different. Back in the day you had strikers always playing under the last man, making runs from behind all the time, never coming short. Now the strikers want to come short. Most of them — apart from Luis Suarez — he still goes behind, Lewandowski has a bit of both. Aguero also likes to run from behind.
Back in those days, we had all the strikers who liked to run in from behind, playing always the off-side line, hoping that you’re not going to be offside to go on the goal. Ultimately, it's up to what the bosses are doing and changing the tactics. But what I have recently seen is a lot of teams are trying to go back to playing with two strikers. So, by doing that, you’re going to redevelop all those strikers around. But yeah, the game did change, I don’t think we've lost them (the poachers), because you can still see some great finishers in the game. For example, Lewandowski comes closest to what some of those guys were. Suarez is a bit different, Lewandowski is very much a box player, he can also play and run, so he’s very complete in that manner.
How did you prefer to play? As a lone striker or with a striking partner?
Henry: I’ve always grown up playing with two strikers. It’s always great as you can straightaway play with someone. If you get a long ball you can give to someone, then he can pass it back to you and straightaway you can be more effective as a player. But the game has evolved in a way where you have one striker, two wingers and there’s a No 10.
I played with Dennis Bergkamp and he used to drop. I was actually never playing in the middle. I was always drifting on the left. People talk about playing with a false nine and not with a nine. At Arsenal, sometimes we were never playing with a nine. I was on the wings and Bergkamp was dropping. But the movements that we were creating, we always had someone in the middle. It doesn’t matter who that was or at what time.
At Barcelona, I was playing on the wing, but being a striker I had that (striker's) mentality. (Lionel) Messi played on the right but he also played as a false nine sometimes and then Samuel Eto’o went to the right, he also had that striker's mentality. So when we were on the field all of us had that striker’s mentality, but we had to also maintain the width as that’s how Pep (Guardiola) liked to play. The game has evolved in that way, and as a striker you have to do things that people didn’t ask you to do before.
Wayne Rooney is going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment. Being a striker, what are the adjustments you have to make once you cross the age of 30 and how do you prepare for it mentally?
Henry: This type of situation happens to everybody. I’ve played with one of the greats like Bergkamp, who at one point wasn’t playing as much at Arsenal. But he found a way to get time, the minutes and finally a new position. That’s what Wayne Rooney is going through and with the quality that he has got, he will do it. He has been a great player in the league and I’m sure he will find a solution.
We have seen Theo Walcott's resurgence this season, do you think that shifting from the striker's position to the wings has helped him?
That you’ll have to ask the boss. Because I’ve lost count of how many times of wherever he (Walcott) wanted to play, I think he wanted to play on the right and then he wanted to play in the middle and now he wants to be back on the right. I think at the end of the day, it’s not about where you want to play. If you’re good and you’re having a good season, then look, he’s sometimes on right, sometimes in the middle, sometimes Sanchez is on the right. Sometimes they switch. Most of the times, he’s on the right. It's the creativity and the way you move that will create space for you.
How difficult is it for you to not think like a striker while coaching?
Henry: It's the same thing. Being a striker doesn't make a difference. We are everywhere. Even the goalkeepers, from their hand, they can analyse the game, they can see what's in front of them. For us as well, we are the top of the field and when we turn we see what's happening. But the knowledge of the game is the same regardless of whether you are a striker or a right back or a central midfielder. A great player is a great player, that doesn't mean he can't see the game, doesn't matter if he is a striker. I don't think like that because if I think in a certain kind of way, I don't have to change that because I am a striker.
How do you rate yourself as a striker?
Henry: I never do that. I always try to do what I could’ve done, try to be the best player I could’ve been. And then people will always talk, so that’s ultimately up to them to think whatever they want to think. When you play, you want to make sure that you can help your team and don't let them down which is the most important thing. I didn’t have to rate myself, you have enough people to do that.
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