June 25th, 2007 • 11:38 am
Lots of things have been written about the decision made by Thierry Henry to move to Barcelona and by Arsenal to allow him to do so. One recurring theme in my own thoughts on the subject has been the concept of loyalty.
It is not so much about the player’s loyalty to the club. Yes, Thierry Henry did make seemingly final statements last year about wanting to finish his career at Arsenal, and his actions now obviously contradict those statements. But this is nothing new in the footballing world, and there was no real reason—except for an irrational, romantic attachment to the club—to believe that Thierry Henry would be immune from it. On the contrary, the fact that, by his own admission, he was very close to moving to Spain last year already was a pretty clear indication that things might still change. And change they did, obviously.
It is disappointing to hear him put so much emphasis on the departure of David Dein and the “uncertainty” regarding Arsène Wenger’s future as the reasons for his departure. These factors have undoubtedly played a role, but it seems quite obvious to more sensible followers of the game that the main reasons are to be found elsewhere: in the player’s personal ambitions (particularly to win the Champions’ League), and possibly in increasingly strained relations and increasing impatience with his manager and maybe with other players. I think it’s safe to say that things started going wrong when Thierry Henry was made captain. This was not really a suitable role for him, and it showed, both on and off the pitch. He was never a team leader and motivator in the way that a true captain needs to be. We obviously don’t really know what went on in the dressing room, but what took place on the pitch was a clear enough indication.
So the excuses used by Thierry Henry, again and again, in his statements are somewhat disappointing, and the metaphorical twist used to justify the continuing use of the “Gunner for Life” phrase is a bit rich. But you cannot really begrudge him his ambition, and you cannot expect him to be completely irrational and selfless about the remaining third or quarter of his footballing career. It is objectively true that he personally has a better chance of winning more trophies, including the Champions’ League, with Barcelona than with Arsenal. He’s obviously wanted there, and I am sure that the Spanish fans will give him lots of reasons not to regret his move.
This is not the kind of “loyalty” that these events have made me think about. My questions are more about my own loyalties. Football fans have irrational attachments to certain teams—but my own attachments are also founded on very objective, rational reasons. My attachment to Arsenal is inseparable from my attachment to the “beautiful game,” i.e. to football played with flair, elegance, and creativity. And Thierry Henry has obviously always been a big part of this, because of his own flair, elegance, and creativity. With Thierry Henry gone, will Arsenal continue to forge ahead with this particular vision of football?
There is no doubt that the style of football that they play will not change overnight, especially with Arsène Wenger still at the helm, but, even though it was before my time, I do know that it was not too long ago that Arsenal were known for being “boring” and accumulating narrow 1-0 victories. I doubt very much that I would ever have developed an attachment to the club back then.
So what saddens me most about the recent events is not Thierry Henry’s departure per se. It is the confirmation of the unravelling of the beautiful but fragile balance that was achieved by Arsène Wenger during the first half of the 2000s. I sincerely hope that Wenger will stay and that the new generation of players will be able to keep up the good fight against the big ugly winning machines (Chelsea, Real Madrid, Milan AC, etc.), but there are obviously reasons for concern at this point in time.
It is true that, to some extent, Arsène Wenger has been a shrewd deal-maker and has rarely made mistakes with his big players, but it should not be ignored that he has also made a number of mistakes with the purchase of expensive players that have turned out to be disappointments (Reyes, Hleb, etc.).
It will be very interesting to see what the transfer market brings this summer and what happens during the coming season, but there are also good reasons to fear yet another repeat of the disappointments of the last three seasons, and then possibly a further exodus of key players next year. There could be a few more lean years before the club regains not only its stature, but also its key role as a paragon of quality football with a winning edge.
Meanwhile, I will probably not resist the temptation to also continue to follow Thierry Henry’s own career in Spain. There have been too many truly beautiful moments for him at Arsenal, and it would be great to experience a few more while watching him play for Barcelona (and France). That means even more football games to watch!