The ex-Arsenal striker’s reputation may have been damaged in Ligue 1, but he has the tools to repair it across the Atlantic
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Hours after Thierry Henry took charge of Monaco in October 2018, former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger sent out a warning.
Speaking to L’Equipe, the wizened old head paid homage to his former Highbury ace but cautioned that in the coaching game, circumstances play as great a role as ability when he said: “Thierry’s very intelligent and has all the qualities to succeed. But after that, you have to have good players, believe in them, have a little luck and, above all, be in a favourable environment.”
Henry was to learn very quickly that the circumstances at Monaco, a club he called home from 1992-99 as a young player, was distinctly hostile. He was dogged by the errors of those that had gone before him, touched by misfortune and hampered by his own inexperience in a head coach role as it rapidly became clear that the job he was tasked was too great for him.
When he arrived, Monaco were 18th in the standings; by the time he left 12 Ligue 1 matches later, they were just nine points better off and had slipped into an automatic relegation position.
Now, however, he has been offered an opportunity of redemption in MLS with the Montreal Impact, where he will take over for the next two years.
It took only 20 matches at Monaco for Henry’s reputation as a coach to take a pounding that rendered him unemployable at any meaningful European club.
What promised to be a triumphant homecoming at Stade Louis II when he took over quickly degenerated into an embarrassing exercise in damage limitation for the principality side, who were left so unimpressed by their former academy striker’s abilities in the dugout that they moved to re-appoint Leonardo Jardim barely three months after he had been sacked.
For a man who had known nothing but success on the field since a brief struggle as a youngster with Juventus 20 years earlier, it was a chastening experience.
And just as the 42-year-old bounced back from the adversity he knew in Turin as a player by becoming an all-time great with Arsenal and France, he will seek to learn from the lessons he was taught during his difficult period on the Cote d’Azur to become a better coach.
Certainly, circumstances played against him on his Monaco return. The club’s transfer policy, which had been such a strength when Luis Campos was sporting director, had become a caricature of itself under Michael Emenalo, who allowed senior players to depart the previous summer only to replace them with youngsters much too green for the rigours of Ligue 1.
Also out of Henry’s control was a crippling injury crisis that gripped the club for much of last term and left his hands tied in vital fixtures, while he was unable to appoint Julien Stephan as his assistant as Rennes blocked the deal. Instead, Stephan took the main job in Brittany and led his side to Coupe de France success against Paris Saint-Germain in May.
That’s not to exonerate him of all blame: his man-management was, by all accounts, dreadful as he struggled to work with players less capable than he once was, while the signings he did have an influence over during January 2019 failed to impress. Nevertheless, after close to a year out of the game, these are experiences he has had time to digest, evaluate and learn from.
He will have the opportunity to atone for his errors in a setting where the spotlight on him will not be quite so intense. Inevitably, there will be a degree of curiosity as to how he performs following the Monaco debacle, but there is little doubt that he is deserving of another frontline role after establishing himself as a crucial member of Roberto Martinez’s backroom team that took Belgium to third at the 2018 World Cup finals.
And there is no better setting than MLS, with Henry so keen on taking up the role that he reached out to the Impact when the vacancy in French-speaking Quebec was made clear.
It is a feeling that the Impact have made known was mutual.
“We were contacted because Thierry was interested in coming back to Major League Soccer and specifically wanted to look at Montreal. So you get that phone call, you do some homework, you go out, we met with him, spent a lot of time with him and came to the conclusion pretty quickly that he was our first choice,” president Kevin Gilmore told Montreal 690 TSN Radio, confirming that the 1998 World Cup winner was their sole candidate for the post.
And – the Monaco debacle aside – it is easy to see why Henry was such an attractive proposition.
He might be best known for a playing career in which he became an Arsenal legend, but he successfully charmed the U.S. with his commitment to MLS, which has been unmatched by any marquee star who has made the trip across the Atlantic.
While playing for the New York Red Bulls, he was known as a keen student of the game, someone who would hungrily watch every MLS match and who appeared to know everything about every player – no matter how obscure. It was an attitude as obsessive as the one that Wenger showed throughout his managerial career.
Henry, then, travels to Montreal with his eyes wide open to the vagaries of the salary cap and travel issues, not to mention the idiosyncrasies of the Impact owner Joey Saputo, who has, thus far, failed to show sufficient patience with a coach in order to allow the team to have its problems addressed.
And the Canadians do have their issues. Last season they missed out on the MLS playoffs by four points, conceding an alarming 60 times in 34 matches – the third-worst record in MLS.
Their project, however, is at a crossroads, with a new sporting director, Olivier Renard, in place and Henry apparently promised the opportunity to construct a side in his image.
Although the new season begins in February – the earliest start ever to an MLS season – Gilmore is confident that there is both the time and the chemistry to set the foundations for an improved side.
“Olivier and Thierry connected immediately and basically concluded there was perfect alignment there in terms of philosophy going forward,” he said. “It was important from Olivier’s standpoint that he bring someone on board as he’s making important decisions in the coming weeks and months, and so we put all of our focus on getting this done.”
Now the ball is in Henry’s court. Unlike Monaco, where events contrived against him, the fates seem to be aligning positively in Canada as he lines up his second – and possibly last – opportunity to make it in a top job.
It is a chance he deserves.