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'A remarkable job' - Henry earning strong reviews after unimaginable first MLS season

9:00 PM SGT 26/11/20
Thierry Henry Montreal Impact
The Arsenal icon came to Montreal Impact to grow as a manager, and his first 12 months in charge suggest he is in the right place to do just that

There are so many qualities that made Thiery Henry great. His speed, his finishing and his pure understanding of the game are chief among them.

But perhaps the most important, the most vital to his success, was his pure desire for perfection. 

Henry is a man that seeks that flawlessness in everything he does, sometimes frustrating those alongside him in the process. "Amateurs call it genius. Masters call it practice," his Twitter biography reads, offering a glimpse into how the France icon approaches not just this sport, but life.

Practice makes perfect, and perfection is the goal.

But this season, Henry's first in charge of the Montreal Impact, ended on Friday, and it was anything but perfect. In fact, it was no doubt unlike anything Henry could have possibly imagined.

Yet, despite all of the setbacks and unforeseen hurdles that Henry and the Impact had to clear, even the former Arsenal star himself must see what the team achieved as some measure of success.

"I'm really proud of them. Really. I'm being honest," Henry said on Friday after the New England Revolution's 2-1 victory knocked the Impact out of the MLS playoffs.

"With what they had to go through during this season, could it have been better? Of course it could have been better. But I will share with you that I am proud of them and I'm saying it."

It was a season that was headlined by the coronavirus pandemic, ensuring that Henry's debut campaign a stop-and-start one. But, unlike most MLS teams, the Impact - along with Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps - faced additional hurdles.

Unable to play home games in Canada, Henry's Impact set up shop in New Jersey at Red Bull Arena; coincidentally the home of his former club, the New York Red Bulls

By the time it was all over, combining the 'MLS is Back' tournament and their stay in New Jersey, the Impact spent several months living in hotels. That is months without the comfort of home, months without family and friends. Months that, for this club, were among the most challenging imaginable. 

And, while the Impact do still have their soon-to-be-resumed CONCACAF Champions League tie with Olimpia left to contend with, Friday's loss felt like the end of what has been an unimaginable first season in charge for Henry.

Hired just over a year ago, Henry came to the Impact in search of some stability.

After leaving his coaching role with Belgium to take charge at former club Monaco, Henry was dismissed after just 20 games. MLS, typically more forgiving for coaches, would give Henry a chance to actually build something.

But this season, Henry was hit with a different challenge: the pandemic.

After just two games, the MLS season was postponed, forcing Henry to take his coaching virtual. With all of the trials and tribulations that came with managing this MLS season, there is a feeling that Henry still has not quite had his chance to put his stamp on things.

The Impact's results, by and large, mirrored last year's, although this time around it was enough for the club to jump into the playoffs despite playing virtually the entire season away from Montreal.

That fact wasn't unnoticed by Revs boss Bruce Arena, who spoke glowingly of Henry ahead of their clash on Friday.

“One thing that I think that's been challenging for Thierry, as well as it's challenging for people like myself and all the other coaches in the league, is dealing with your players during the pandemic,” Arena said. 

“It was magnified in the case of Montreal given the fact that they had to leave home and take up shop in New Jersey. That's extremely challenging, and the fact that Thierry was able to get his team through this and qualify for the playoffs is remarkable.

"I would say he gets a real good grade in terms of being a leader of a club in a very difficult year.

“He's been pretty determined about the fact that he wanted his team to play and they build out of pressure, and they've been pretty consistent with that. That's not easy to do in a first year with a team, so I give him a lot of credit for that.”

Perhaps Henry's biggest surprise in his first season has been his flexibility. Most coaches come in and try and mould a team to their philosophies. Henry has certainly done that, but he has also moulded his philosophies to the team he has.

He does so in typical Henry fashion, though. He is still that perfectionist at heart, and his trademark dry humour does show up from time to time. 

“Can you pass it one touch?" he asked one of his players while mic'd up on the sideline. ”Then why don’t you do it?”

At the end of the day, the Impact are not one of MLS' big spenders, despite bringing in the likes of Victor Wanyama and Bojan Krkic in recent years. And coaching in MLS is much different than coaching Belgium and Monaco.

Henry is familiar with those differences, having initially adjusted expectations as a player when moving from Barcelona to the Red Bulls. After making that move, Henry became a teacher just as much as a competitor, and that has certainly helped him in his coaching career.

Tactically, Henry adjusted.

There were spells where the Impact played with a back five and times when the team went with a back four. There were times where Henry's background told him to coach his team to dominate the ball, and there were times where he realised that, with the team he had, that was impossible.

Henry was willing to experiment, willing to try things and, most importantly, willing to adjust when those things went wrong.

But Henry is still a coach that is learning. He is still a coach that is learning who he is and how he wants his team to play. Discovering that takes time and, with the Impact, it appears he will get it.

“I remember I was still playing in 2012 and [the Philadelphia Union] were at the bottom of the league, struggling,” Henry recently told TSN.

“They kept at it, they kept the same coach, built a philosophy through their academy. Got the players they needed to get to play the football they wanted to play. And six years or seven years after they’re winning the [Supporters'] Shield for the first time.

"With all those teams that survive at the top, it’s because they had something from before, from previous years. That Liverpool team didn’t become Liverpool now that we know in two years. It took [Jurgen] Klopp two-and-a-half to three years to win something. That’s how long it takes and we’re talking about Klopp.”

He added: “What was missing in Monaco was time. Time is important in everything. Patience is important in everything. If you don’t have it, it’s a bit tough.”

Henry's first MLS season is over and, after no doubt having his confidence shaken at Monaco, he has proven that he can coach.

There is work to be done, with the Impact, coincidentally, in need of a No.9 that Henry can trust. This team, for all of its faults, is seemingly one or two pieces away from taking a leap from fringe playoff team to actual contender.

And, if that happens, this season will serve as a building block. It was a season that saw this club overcome adversity before earning a much-needed return to the playoffs.

It was a year that saw several players take steps forward under the tutelage of one of the best strikers to play this game.

And it was a season that saw Henry prove that he can coach if given the time and flexibility to do so.