In his four years with the New York Red Bulls, Thierry Henry has become used to the pre-season summer comings and goings of European teams, crisscrossing the USA in attempts to gain toeholds in one of the great underdeveloped markets of global football. His beloved Arsenal have not been one of those sides – until now.
On Saturday, Arsenal will play their first senior game in the USA for a quarter of a century, when they play New York at New Jersey’s Red Bull Arena. On Thursday, Henry and Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger were reunited at the stadium, as the Red Bulls striker welcomed the man who turned him into one of the world’s deadliest forwards at Highbury.
Two men who pride themselves on their cool were never going to weep for the camera. Henry took his method assimilation to extremes in insisting “My mind is on Salt Lake, to be honest with you”, as he contemplated his team’s next opponents in an indifferent MLS season. However, when asked about new Arsenal signings Alexis Sánchez and Mathieu Debuchy, he did let slip: “The boss will be here soon. You’re going to have to ask him. I’m only a fan.”
Wenger made light of his team’s supposed lack of cutting edge up front, by claiming: “I came here with only one striker because I hope he [Henry] could play for us maybe. I haven’t given up, maybe he can play one half for us.”
Such a scenario was mooted, at least semi-seriously, in the run-up to the game. But it is unlikely, given Fifa rules. Wenger did, however, expand on what makes Henry special:
He had all the top qualities as a football player when he started at 17-years-old at Monaco, now he’s been playing 17 years at the top level, not many players last at the top level of competition. He has the physique, he has the technical qualities and he’s a very bright guy. So that means they learn from the competition and that’s what he did. He analyzes very quickly, and has a good combination between being focused and relaxed. That’s the most important quality at the top level, is that high level of focus and being relaxed as well – the right mixture – and he has that.
If it was an otherwise circumspect reunion, it was hardly the first contact the two men have had since Henry left Arsenal for Barcelona in 2007. Henry’s New York side even had the temerity to win the Emirates Cup at the Emirates Stadium in 2011, drawing with the hosts in the only other game these two sides have played.
Of course, there was also the sentimental swan song for Henry of his brief 2012 loan spell at Arsenal, and as Wenger noted, Henry continues to train with the Gunners in the off-season.
“Last year he practiced with us,” the Frenchman said, “and I have two witnesses here and it was the sharpest I’ve seen him. He was very, very sharp and he came back here in very good shape.”
It could be argued that neither Arsenal or Henry have ever been the same without the other. When he left Arsenal, Henry’s 174 league goals were a club record. Yet injuries, and perhaps even his dominant presence at the club, had slightly diminished his effectiveness, as the player himself acknowledged in a Daily Telegraph interview a few months after his departure:
“Because of my seniority, the fact that I was captain and my habit of screaming for the ball, they would sometimes give it to me even when I was not in the best position. So in that sense it was good for the team that I moved on.”
In other senses though, it was palpably not good for the team. The likes of Cesc Fábregas and Robin van Persie came and went without winning a trophy, and until this season’s FA Cup win, Arsenal’s silverware-free period stretched back to 2005 and the late-Henry era.
Henry had success at Barcelona, including a Champions League win, but the man who had been voted by the fans Arsenal's best ever player was now one of several stars at his new team, rather than the undisputed talisman, and initially found himself shuttled out onto the wing. He adapted, but as a player among players, even if those players were establishing a new global paradigm for team play while his former Arsenal team-mates joined the also-rans.
Since joining the Red Bulls, in 2010, Henry has once again become the main man, but in a young league that did not even exist the last time Arsenal played in the USA, in a friendly against Independiente in Miami in 1989.
Major League Soccer is making steady progress, expanding rapidly and attracting investors who see its long-term potential, but is still something of a footballing backwater. The US, though, represents a potentially huge market for Premier League teams, who received a boost in the past season with NBC’s acquisition of the TV and digital rights for the league – ensuring that every Premier League game is shown live on either cable or streaming options.
In targeting a US audience amongst whom football is now the second most-watched sport among 12-20 year olds, several Premier league sides have been aggressively building their presence. Chelsea have toured almost annually; Liverpool and Manchester United are regular guests too. Manchester City have even invested in an MLS franchise, New York City FC, who will begin play in 2015, with David Villa and now Frank Lampard in their ranks.
Thursday's conformation of Lampard’s signing was raised with Henry on Thursday, but true to the incipient New York rivalry, his response was dismissive: “I just thought we were going to talk about the game. That isn’t my club. You should ask them.”
Arsenal have not ventured Stateside in the Premier League era. Instead, once Wenger reluctantly abandoned his preferred pre-season method of hosting the Emirates Cup and making short tours to Austria, the club’s marketing trips have taken them to Asia.
In fact, traveling to the US briefly became a bone of contention in 2009, when Wenger pushed back against the growing influence of the American shareholder Stan Kroenke, by asserting that Kroenke's demand for a 2010 US pre-season tour was interfering with Wenger’s domain of team affairs, and that US tours were a bad idea:
It doesn't prepare the players properly, it's not possible to take players who are just back from World Cups or European Championships.
Wenger’s position has since mellowed – evidently, so soon after a World Cup – in part because of the realpolitik that applies to a club not daring to be left behind in a vital market that is now attracting other European teams. Both Milan sides, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich are among those playing in the US this coming week.
Wenger acknowledged that football is at something of a key moment in the US:
“Since I was a kid, I remember a time when Pele and Beckenbauer came here with New York Cosmos and I thought at the time, football would take off here. It took a while, now it looks to me like it’s really booming suddenly without any rational explanation.
“I think there’s a lot of work to do here but it’s very exciting. I would love to be 30 years younger and witness that because I think the next 20 years will be very exciting to develop the game here and hopefully become a force in world football. Because you have so many people, so many people love sport, the mental strength is there, the love for sport is here, so the next 20 years should be very interesting for football here.”
Perhaps, Wenger was asked, one last time, in the case of the Red Bulls at least one former colleague’s presence made the lure of a game in New York that much more attractive.
“He’s a legend at the club,” the manager said. “When I put him at centre-forward he told me ‘Look, I can’t score goals’ and for somebody who can’t score goals he has done quite well.”