Thierry Henry has been a lot of things to a lot of people. As the banner that once hung from the South Ward at Red Bull Arena explained, ‘Gunner. Red Bull. Legend.’
Another title can now be added to that list: head coach of the Montreal Impact.
Henry chose to resume his coaching career with the Impact after some time spent ‘in the dark’.
“You guys always remember the good stuff, but I became a better player in the darkness,” Henry, said at his introductory news press conference in Montreal. “Hopefully that’s going to help me to become a good coach.”
The sense of uncertainty that surrounds Henry’s appointment is understandable. His previous head coaching role, with AS Monaco, lasted just 104 days. His time in the principality was defined by inconsistent tactics on the pitch, and an inability to foster togetherness off it.
Now he is back in MLS, back in Montreal, a city that first captivated him in 2011 when he was with the New York Red Bulls. Henry has had just 10 months away from coaching, and the obvious question is, why has he returned?
“It’s an evolution, it’s a long road, but what makes me come back is because of my passion. It’s my life,” Henry said. “It’s a new start, and we need to move forward and build. You don’t build a legacy in two, three months, or even a year.
Henry will, however, require more than a captivating press conference to escape the ghosts of Monaco.
The former Arsenal favourite was appointed head coach of his former club in October 2018, just months after the club had undergone a significant overhaul of their squad.
The likes of Fabinho, Joao Moutinho, Thomas Lemar, and Kylian Mbappe had been critical components of the Monaco side that won Ligue 1 and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. All four left in the space of a summer, with few pedigreed signings arriving to replace them.
To compound matters, the squad Henry inherited was plagued by injuries to key players. He responded by trying to be conservative and adapt his tactics match to match, but the playing style became amorphous. It was far removed from some of the coaches he worked under, most notably Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola.
“Pep is the reference, for me,” Henry said at his Monaco unveiling. “The invention he had in the game; he’s well ahead of the game. There’s no right or wrong; that’s the reference for me. I re-learned how to play the game when I went to Barcelona under him.”
That dedication, one that borders on obsession, is easy to spot in Henry. His Twitter bio reads “Amateurs call it genius. Masters call it practice.”
Interestingly, both striker Radamel Falcao and former Monaco vice president Vadim Vasilyev spoke positively about Henry following his departure in January 2019.
“[Henry] has a science to football,” Falcao told France Football. “I think that he has everything required to be a great manager. I think that he has good ideas. He reads football well. But three months was too short to develop them.”
Henry is also the first to admit that he made mistakes at Monaco.
“For me, the way I put it is always [either] you win or you learn, and I learned a lot there,” Henry said on Monday. “It’s about coming back, always. You have to get up and be in front of what happens. The only mistake that you can make is not learning from what happened.”
The 42-year-old would not go into specifics about what he had learned, but his claim will undoubtedly be tested in this new role. Running parallel to that will be a challenge to see out his two-year contract in full.
The Impact entered MLS in 2012, and Henry will be their 7th permanent head coach during that time. The club’s trigger-happy nature has primarily been fuelled by eccentric owner Joey Saputo. Like Henry, he has often sought complete control and although he has taken a step back from the day-to-day running of the club, how Henry manages that relationship may define his time in Montreal.
The hope for supporters will be that patience can instead prevail. Henry’s tactical vision may need to be adapted to accommodate a group of players below his level. Still, he arrives with an understanding of the league, and if Montreal’s players’ buy-in to his ideas then he could enjoy a reinvention in MLS.
When Henry arrived at Barcelona, he was told he would start on the bench. He embraced that challenge, adapted himself, and succeed. He must do the same again in Montreal, otherwise, his coaching career, much like his playing days, may end in MLS.
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