Monday, January 9, 2012

Thierry Henry - The Return of the King

Full disclosure: I think Thierry Henry is one of the greatest footballers to ever play the game. There, now that that's over with, we can have a rational, measured conversation about his epic -- and the word epic must be applied here -- game-winning goal today in the FA Cup over Leeds. For those of you who don't follow the world of football as closely as I do, and for the smaller subset of you who don't follow Arsenal as closely as I do, Thierry Henry, in one of the most dramatic transfers in my memory, recently returned to Arsenal on a two-month loan deal from New York Red Bulls. If you don't know what that means to Arsenal fans, just type in "Thierry Henry" and "Arsenal" into YouTube and say goodbye to your weekend. The greatest striker to ever wear the red and white returned to his club for what was meant to be a squad boost to a depleted front line and a locker room boost for an inconsistent, youthful team. What it became today, after his epic game-winning goal (have I mentioned it was epic?) in the , was something out of a fucking J.R.R. Tolkien book. I would apologize for my language, but I'm so freaking excited about what happened today that words of all sorts of fire and density are spewing forth like magma from an erupting volcano (AHHH!). And to answer your inevitable question, yes, volcanoes are awesome, which is why I used one as a positive analogy.

But for all the superlative adjectives I could use to describe Thierry Henry's career, what he meant to Arsenal, and what him scoring a game-winning goal (epic) tonight has done for a frustrated, albeit slightly-spoiled, fanbase, most football fans know the "Thierry Henry story." Even the staunchest anti-Arsenal fan is a fan of Thierry Henry's body of work, because, well dammit, he's just that good. He played a match tonight at a stadium where they've already erected a statue of him.

So I'm going to avoid talking about Thierry Henry's brilliant career, and talk about something small, something so miniscule-beautiful (it's a thing), that it single-handedly expresses what I love about football. When Alex Song (circled in red) received a pass from Andrei Arshavin at the top of the box, he had a myriad of options ahead of him. In this frame, Thierry Henry is off camera to the bottom left, doing what he does best: Finding a gap in the defense.

Song could've kicked it ahead short to Arteta, swung it out wide to an open winger, or pushed it into tight space where Aaron Ramsey was waiting. But Song stepped up and held onto the ball patiently, waiting for the attack to open up in front of him. He pressed forward with the ball, sucking the defense toward him, which appeared to open up a few passing lanes. From here, he still held full control of the situation, but remained patient.

Song's options were to hit the streaking winger to the top right, who then could've fed a cross into the box; pass short with Ramsay and try to open up a one-two to push him deeper into the danger zone (squealing guitars), he could've lumped it back to Arshavin, who would've had a pretty good amount of space in front of him to either hit the cross-field winger on a diagonal or take a long shot (he's good at those), or he could've tried to lay a perfectly-weighted pass in the direction of a streaking Arteta who was hustling behind the first layer of defense, but instead, he checked up, bought himself a little more time, and waited for the real chance to open up for him. Notice the four defenders forming the back line. Where are their eyes? All on Song. This is important when you see the next frame. Let's just take a big breath here, because the next frame is so beautiful it needs to be seen twice. Once without my fucked-up scribbles, and then once with them so I can actually explain what made this moment so spectacular.

Do you see it? Alex Song sees it. He's still got loads of options too, and he's collapsed the front line of the defense in on him. He basically single-handedly froze eight players just from pushing forward and holding onto the ball. Had he made a different decision, to just quickly pass it off to someone else, this whole play would've broken down.

All right, now I'll show you the same frame but with some scribbles. Get excited.

You'll notice the winger at the top right now, his arms raised, begging for the ball. What the hell? Why do people do that?! NFL receivers, Kobe Bryant, and wingers. They're all the bloody same. They all want the ball and they throw fits when they don't get it. But Alex Song is in no position to pass to that winger, and, frankly, even if he did manage to get it out wide, the left back would've had plenty of time to close and the winger would've, at best, managed to thump a cross into traffic. They're set up well to defend the cross, just not the player who snuck his way into the frame. See the circle there? That's Thierry Henry. That's one of the greatest players in the history of English football. He's completely unmarked. They're not even watching him. They're just locked onto Alex Song and the ball. And Thierry Henry, who just came back from holiday in Mexico two weeks ago, is hardly match-fit, and probably shouldn't have even played in this match, has such tremendous instincts that he immediately recognized the diagonal and made a run so sweet it should be watched and emulated by strikers around the world; it should be played over-and-over again by youth coaches to show their young strikers what a run is. He has to time it PERFECTLY, there can be no error at all, because if he times it wrong, he'll be offside and the whole thing could come crumbling to a halt. But he spotted the gap, took the chance, and we're all now better off today than we were yesterday having witnessed it.

(Also, I'd like to show this to you from a different angle, to shut up those conspiracy theorists among you who would try to ruin this incredible moment by shouting offsides. There, suck it.)

All right, back to the action.

Song threads a brilliant pass through four defenders and hits Thierry in stride. Snapshot aficionados will notice I've put an X through the winger again. He's fucking persistent, isn't he? The ball is already on the way to Thierry F&#%ing Henry, and he's still shouting for the ball. Put your hands down. Just watch. That's what the defenders will be doing in a couple seconds.

Thierry receives the ball and flicks it up in the air with a deft touch that brings tears to my eyes (his first touch is the opposite of Nicklas Bendtner's), stopping a difficult pass with tremendous skill and laying it out in perfect position at his feet. While he's running. While defenders are chasing him and a goalkeeper is about to come out toward him to close the distance. Thierry Henry's got some big ones, doesn't he?

Henry opens his body up, giving him a secondary angle to the far post, but he splits the goal in half and essentially leaves the keeper with a bit of a conundrum (left or right? Hmm!). Now, I've seen other strikers miss this shot so many times I've lost count. I've seen it smacked against the side netting, lofted over the keeper, rolled wide right (Theo Walcott's favorite one), or even just kicked right at the keeper. But I had no doubt what was going to happen when Thierry got in this position, and you can see an Arsenal player sprinting forward with his hands raised already. Apparently, he's done his Thierry homework like the rest of us (minus the defenders, who obviously watched a few MLS matches last year and thought Henry was a horse headed for the glue factory).

Look at it. Just soak it in. Let that beautiful shot make love to your eyes. Let the outstretched keeper toil in infinite space and time, the ball already behind him, 60,000 fans in mid-leap, the game, once tied, a millisecond away from being over.

Voila. The money shot. Henry sprinted down the touchline, his arms spread wide in unexpected -- but strangely expected, too -- glory. His teammates tried to mob him, but Thierry kept running down the sideline, shouting passionately at the home fans who've shown him decades worth of love and adoration. He looked like he'd just won at "Gladiator" (I'm really good at Roman history, obviously), and as he ran down the sideline, he embraced his coach, Arsene Wenger, the way a child hugs his dad after his first home run. It was fucking epic, and I got misty. It could've have been written any better.

That goal is why I love football, not just tactically, but because of the drama and the strategy behind something so simple as a well-timed run behind a weary defense. Thierry Henry is why I love football. And I'm sure as hell glad to have him back in an Arsenal jersey.

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