After the gushing for Thierry Henry that came with his retirement, there is naturally the wish for a more cynical take on his career. As ever in soccer, it is perfectly easy to snipe from the sidelines and try to discredit a player with a few choice moments. At 37, Henry has had more than a few, most of which fail to detract from the majesty of his peak. No matter the complaints about career choices and leadership qualities, the Henry that led Arsenal to titles has a place among the best players in Premier League history.
Perhaps one of Henry’s finest achievements is that he appeared to settle the debate between himself and Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy – the leading scorers for what were then the Premier League’s most prominent clubs. During the players’ prime, the United-Arsenal rivalry had yet to be superseded by the oil money of Manchester City or Chelsea, and Arsène Wenger was not the pathetic figure he is today. Into that dynamic, Henry arrived in 1999 and, after an iffy start, only improved. Two years later, delayed by a serious knee injury, van Nistelrooy arrived at Old Trafford. By the end of his five-year stay, van Nistelrooy had accumulated 150 goals, though in three extra seasons, Henry had 226 at Arsenal.
At the height of their individual battle — from 2001 to 2003, perhaps 2004 — there were arguments to be made for either player. Predictably, favor coincided with the side you supported, or which team you hated least. Henry looked more graceful and had more flair about his play, and in one-on-ones, he was excellent. Van Nistelrooy, though, just did not stop scoring, and he too had his moments of flair and creativity, with deceptively quick feet, and obviously quick thinking:
Before Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, it was van Nistelrrooy who first made a goal a game seem credible, getting 44 in 52 in the 2002-03 season. But in 2004-05, injuries prevented him from playing more than 27 games. He returned with almost 50 games in the next season, but by then, with Henry still scoring in London, the debate was settled.
Thanks to that longer, healthier peak, Henry had inched ahead. He was the better player, the debate went, and that’s largely where the discussion stopped. Yet while Henry was enduring his final, slightly miserable and unnecessary before leaving for Barcelona in 2007, van Nistelrooy scored 33 goals for Real Madrid and won La Liga, an honor that was duplicated the following season. Those two years provided 53 goals in 80 games. Once you consider their times in Spain, van Nistelrooy was at least Henry’s equal.
At the same age that Henry decided to head to New York, 32, van Nistelrooy was recovering from the second serious knee injury, but instead of retiring or looking for a lucrative option in China or Dubai, he recovered and struggled for fitness while trying to win back his place in Madrid. Eventually, in Jan. 2010, van Nistelrooy joined Hamburger SV and enjoyed a strong first season in the Bundesliga. Three months later, he opened the next campaign with a hat trick, playing so well that then Madrid head coach José Mourinho invited him back to Real. Only his new club prevented a return.
Pulling on Henry’s cape
There are other issues with Henry’s broader case, the first being retiring too soon. Yes, he went to the Major League Soccer at 32 and continued his career for five years, but MLS was not as healthy then as it is now. Like David Beckham before him, he was able to coast, rarely able to play at a peak that had been dented by years of knocks and stresses.
Nevertheless, as the video suggests, he didn’t lose his genius, it just appeared to be a little less interested in him. He finished his four-and-a-year stint in New York with 52 goals in 135 games.
Another criticism is that Henry was a poor captain for Arsenal – one who was so self-assured he felt those around him were letting him down. He was never the player to cajole and encourage those who were either yet to get to his level or never would. The cheating against Ireland is another handy example of a moral mistake, but the bigger mistake rests with the referee. For a 20-year career, that’s much better than most will ever manage.
The complaint about retiring too soon also deserves some similar perspective. If we were offered the chance to earn a good wage, move to New York and not have to try especially hard to be one of the best at a company, it would at the very least be tempting. What makes Henry different is the sense he could have been better for longer, a feeling created by the aura of brilliance he had at Arsenal and then Barcelona, where he scored 49 times in three seasons.
That feeling must be balanced against an oft-forgotten reality. Around 2006, Henry began suffering from sciatica, a condition which gave him back, stomach, groin and other injuries. The ailment is difficult enough for an office worker to live with, let alone someone making exceptional physical demands of their body. Clearly, he has managed the condition, but the eight years that followed have represented a sharp drop off, as his loan to Arsenal in 2012 demonstrated.
While Henry had to overcome sciatica, van Nistelrooy succeeded at a higher level after adapting his game to his second potentially career-ending knee injury. The ailments may have different, and they both possessed different bodies and ambitions, but van Nistelrooy was out-performing Henry. Be it in Spain or while the rivals were split between Germany and the States, van Nistelrooy closed the gap Henry built in England.
The final chapters
Van Nistelrooy’s final season was a mess. He moved to Malaga, a Qatari-funded club that matched neither the professionalism nor scale of City. His return to Spain ended in farce, and he managed only five goals in 32 appearances. At 35, he retired.
Internationally, while van Nistelrooy did not win anything with the Netherlands, he scored his last goal for the national side in 2011, finishing his time with in oranje with 35 goals in 70 appearances. Henry had retired from international soccer after the 2010 World Cup, his 51 goals in 123 appearances a record for his country.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, there is no need to worry whether Henry was the best Arsenal player ever, or the best Premier League player ever. It is enough to recognize his talents and achievements for what they were. He was so good that comparison detracts from what made him truly special.
Because van Nistelrooy was a less enigmatic presence, he suffers less from being appraised in a colder light. In fact, because he was dismissed in England as simply ‘not as good as Henry,’ he deserves to reappraised. His record with PSV, Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Netherlands is starkly brilliant — 325 goals in 476 games – but the highlights at and enduring affection from United prove that he was also something more than his numbers.
But the conclusion is this: Henry was, at his peak, better than van Nistelrooy. That’s not in dispute. But who was the better player, year, after year, after year? Well, that is an argument that might this time come down in favor of Van Nistelrooy. As Daniel Harris exclaimed during his first season, “This bloke is a fucking expert,” and as van Nistelrooy’s time in Spain and Germany showed, that expertise persisted long after he and his rival left England.