By Liam Twomey
IF HENRY WANTS TO SUCCEED WENGER, HE CAN'T BE HIS PROTEGE
Having played his last match for New York Red Bulls in Saturday’s MLS Eastern Conference final defeat to New England Revolution, it is obvious that Thierry Henry is already positioning himself for the next stage of his stellar career – and that his love affair with Arsenal is far from over.
“One thing is certain: I will stay in football, as a coach, a consultant or executive,” he told L’Equipe last week. “We will see. The second certainty is that I would love to see Arsenal win the Champions League. Whether that is from near or far does not depend on me but for sure I'd like to help.”
As a notion it is as romantic as footballing reunions come. Dennis Bergkamp features prominently in the conversation but no other figure from the Arsene Wenger glory years embodies the perfect harmony of style and substance quite as well as Henry, the jet-heeled winger-turned-elegant, powerful striker with monstrous goalscoring talent.
No wonder, then, that Wenger insists it is “not impossible” for his former talisman to return to Arsenal in a coaching capacity. Such an arrangement has logical as well as emotional appeal; Henry is a genuine student of the game, an excellent communicator and, given his own skill set as a player, seems the perfect mentor to help polish a rough diamond like Danny Welbeck.
But Henry harbours greater ambitions. He wants to manage Arsenal, as he revealed to no lesser a sporting inquisitor than Graham Norton back in January. “I have so much respect for Arsene, and if [managing Arsenal] does happen eventually, one day, it is going to have to be after him,” he admitted. ”I don’t actually want to talk about it right now because he is doing such a great job, but hopefully after him, yes.”
Henry’s feelings for a man with whom he has repeatedly claimed to enjoy a “father-son relationship” are clear and utterly justifiable; Wenger showed unparalleled faith in the raw ability of a misused 22-year-old and provided the stage on which his countryman’s brilliance shone first and brightest.
Even as the pressure grows on Wenger to leave Arsenal, Henry remains one of his most vocal backers. “For me it's a no-brainer, the guy has changed Arsenal Football Club,” he told BBC Sport. “Were Arsenal successful before? Yes they were but in a different way. Now Arsenal is recognised for the type of football they play. That's all down to him.”
Yet it is telling that the most vociferous praise of Wenger centres on the past rather than the present. He will always be regarded as one of British football’s great revolutionaries, but what is a revolutionary once the revolution overtakes him? Tactics, recruitment and injury prevention are just three areas in which it seems obvious that elite football has left Arsenal and their manager behind.
If Henry wants to one day succeed Wenger, he can’t afford to be his protege. Wedding himself to his former mentor’s vision and methodology would simply condemn the Gunners to further frustration in the biggest competitions and risk tainting the hero status of one of the club’s favourite sons - if he were even to get the opportunity.
Sir Alex Ferguson needed 20 glorious years as manager to earn a statue outside Old Trafford. Henry enjoys the same privilege at the Emirates Stadium without a single day in the hot seat. If he is ever to chance the reins he must first learn from the very best, a man still accustomed to pushing the boundaries of the sport.
A man like Pep Guardiola. Henry knows him well from his two-year stint at Barcelona and reveres him almost as much as Wenger. “Arsene Wenger will always be special to me, but Pep Guardiola is very special, trust me, I worked with him and he’s a great guy, a great leader,” he said in an interview with sponsor Red Bull in February.
Working under Guardiola would put Henry in a position to combine the expansive passing style now expected at Arsenal with the tactical invention and rigour now seemingly beyond Wenger. He could also credibly lay claim to the fresh ideas Gunners fans so desperately crave if he earns his stripes elsewhere.
The consensus is that Henry has all the raw materials for management. "He understands quickly, he understands the play,” Wenger insisted last week. “He has a good nature and a nice manner with people. He has all the qualities.”
Other flashes from his playing pomp – quick free-kicks, a pioneering exploitation of the revamped offside rule and that handball against the Republic of Ireland – suggest he also possesses an even more ruthless winning streak than Wenger.
Arsenal fans must hope that in honing his managerial skills, he forges a path away from north London.
FIERY COSTA NEEDS TO TAME HIS TEMPER
Diego Costa will miss Chelsea’s clash with Tottenham on Wednesday after picking up his fifth booking of the season against Sunderland, but Jose Mourinho should thank his lucky stars the damage wasn’t worse.
A petulant first-half kick-out at John O’Shea was a certain red card offence and the flailing arm that caught Wes Brown across the jaw after the break – for which he was booked – resided firmly in the ‘seen them given’ category. But for referee Kevin Friend, Chelsea might have had to do without their star striker for three matches.
Costa established a reputation as a feisty agitator as well as a world-class scorer in Spain and aggression is a key part of his skill set, but Mourinho needs him to exercise control if Chelsea are to maintain the brutal title pace that has left Manchester City trailing six points in the rear view before the turn of the year.
In the meantime, perhaps missing the Tottenham game is for the best. The last time Costa faced Federico Fazio in Atletico Madrid’s 1-1 draw with Sevilla in January, the Argentine punched the striker in the stomach after having his neck grabbed – all mercifully unseen by the referee.
LAMPARD IS KEEPING MANCHESTER CITY'S TITLE AMBITIONS ALIVE
Frank Lampard’s Indian summer with Manchester City is becoming less amusing for Chelsea fans with every passing week.
On Sunday the Premier League champions seemed set for a very nervy finish against Southampton at St Mary’s when Eliaquim Mangala deservedly saw red for fouling Shane Long on 74 minutes.
But six minutes later Lampard, on as a substitute, scored a trademark goal to secure a fabulous away win that enabled Manuel Pellegrini’s men to close the gap on the unbeaten Blues to six points with 25 games to play. Astonishingly, it also saw him pull within one goal of Henry in the Premier League’s all-time scoring charts.
The goal was Lampard’s fifth in City colours. Three have come in the Premier League and all have been important – none more so than the equaliser that first dented the Chelsea juggernaut at the Etihad Stadium in September. It’s no wonder they want to keep him until the eve of the MLS season in March, and perhaps beyond.
Chelsea look formidable and Jose Mourinho remains firmly in control of their destiny but, if City do manage to roar back and retain their title, it will be hard for those at Stamford Bridge to ignore the Blues legend who did more than most to keep them alive.