Q&A with Philippe Auclair: “I hope Thierry doesn’t return this year”

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The love affair between Arsenal fans and Thierry Henry will surely come to be remembered as one of the defining narratives of this period of the club’s history. He was brightest of the galaxy of stars that have become known as ‘The Invincibles’, and in the increasingly nomadic world of modern football it is hard to imagine how his Arsenal goalscoring record will ever be beaten.

However, the affair between fans and player, between club and captain, was occasionally a complicated one. Thierry was not without his flaws, and his idiosyncratic personality is an ideal subject for discussion in a book. Who better to tell Henry’s story than Philippe Auclair: an authoritative voice on French and English football alike, and particularly Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. The result, ‘Thierry Henry: Lonely At The Top‘, is a fantastic read. I would heartily recommend it to any Gooner.

I was delighted that as part of his promotional work for the book, Philippe agreed to speak to Gunnerblog. When I originally posed these questions to him I had intended to publish a select few within a feature piece. However, his answers were so full and so detailed that I think it’d be a shame to condense them. Go and make a cup of tea, and come back and enjoy the thoughts of one of the most informed Arsenal commentator’s around – and don’t forget to read on to the end of the blog, where you’ll have the chance to a copy of ‘Lonely At The Top’ for yourself.

·         What inspired you to write this book about Thierry?

Two things. First, I was puzzled by the fact that, despite the wealth, if that’s the word, of football biographies and autobiographies which are published in this country, there was none of one of the greatest players to have ever played in this country – apart from a purely factual account of his career which had been written in the wake of the Invincibles season. It’s not as if there was no story to tell, even if Thierry wasn’t the sort of footballer, or person, who jumped at you as an obvious subject as a Cantona, whose every action or pronouncement, it seems, produced drama of one kind or the other.

Second, most people seemed unaware of the dichotomy between the troubled image of Henry in his own country, and his status as a genuine hero for Arsenal fans (and many English neutrals). How could these two perceptions co-exist? What explained them? Could they be reconciled? It was also a superb opportunity to reflect on France’s love affair with its national team, and the subsequent unravelling of that romance. Thierry had been there all along. That made the idea a difficult one to resist .

·         He certainly captured the imagination of Arsenal fans during his time in England.  Did the artistry of his game – and the Arsenal team he excelled in – make him easier to write about?

At times, yes, because I could just let the pen flow guided by my own emotions. He’d given us so much joy. It’s far easier (or it is easier for me) to write about someone you love. I also felt that neither he, nor the Arsenal teams he was part of, were given their proper due when they were at the top of their game. I still think the greatness of the player and of these teams isn’t recognised as it should be – it would’ve been different if Chelsea hadn’t won 2-1 at Highbury in 2004, of course. That missing Champions League trophy throws an unidissipable shadow over other achievements.

·         Thierry Henry has always managed his public image very carefully.  In spite of that, do you feel his professed love for Arsenal to be genuine?

Absolutely, despite the fact that he sometimes expresses this love in a very awkward fashion – again, that’s my own perception of it, based on seeing him, and talking to him, quite regularly over the eight seasons he spent at the club. I have no doubt his love for the club is that of a genuine fan, albeit a unique kind of fan. I should add that others, such as Robert Pires, feel as strong a connection to the club, but find it easier to wear. It is a question of personality, not of depth of feeling.

·         Is there a moment, or a goal, that you think sums Thierry up?

I hope the goal against Leeds United at the Emirates last season will come to be the defining image of his relationships with Wenger, the club, and the club’s fans, as it encapsulated all that is best in them, whilst being a fine example of ‘the’ Henry goal, coming from the left, finding the opposite corner of the net, etc. But this isn’t quite your question. Summing Thierry up is quite a different thing. The Carragher-on-his-backside goal against Liverpool in 2004 is probably Thierry’s own favourite (that game certainly is), but it doesn’t sum him up. There was also the Thierry of that wretched game at Fulham – after which Song was slaughtered by Arsenal fans, as you’ll remember -, all anger and frustration. You can’t have one without the other; the thing was that what we saw 90% of the time was the Henry who left Carragher, well, on his arse. So the answer is ‘not quite’.

·         Arsenal lost another great striker, Robin van Persie, this summer.  Historically, Arsene has always been able to secure the succession of his centre forwards – from Wright to Anelka, Anelka to Henry, Henry to Adebayor, and finally Adebayor to Van Persie.  Do you think Olivier Giroud is able to take on the mantle?

I’ve spent a lot of time ‘defending’ Giroud in the early weeks and months of the season, when a missed chance against Sunderland (comparable to dozen of such missed chances of which Henry and van Persie were culpable, and seemingly hundreds in Adebayor’s case) made him an easy scapegoat for genuine problems which affected the team as a whole.

Some strikers adapt immediately: Aguero, for example. Others take time to settle in: Henry is the most relevant example in Arsenal’s case. Giroud belongs to the second category. He runs on diesel, not unleaded. He’s not a ‘supersub’ a la Solskjaer, who can immediately feel the pulse of a game; almost all of his goals for Montpellier were scored when he’d been part of the starting line-up. Now that he’s established himself as first-choice striker, you can see the difference. He’s become a bit more greedy, which is good for a centre-forward. Even when his finishing is not quite up to his usual standard, he’ll provide others with chances.

I sincerely believe that he’s the best back-to-the-goal number 9 in the league –  far superior to Andy Carroll, to name a centre-forward who is always mentioned when the talk is of ‘target men’ who win ‘the first ball’. He’s much cleverer in his use of the ball, in his runs off it as well. He’s also got a fierce shot on him. But he’s no Robin van Persie who, in terms of sheer technique, belongs to the elite of world football. Giroud doesn’t, yet, and until he’s become a two-footed footballer (which van Persie did), if he can, won’t be able to aspire to such a status. We should remember Giroud was a very late starter in professional football, and that his margin of progression is huge. He’ll still score over twenty goals for Arsenal this season if he stays injury-free. Not too bad, no?

·         Arsene’s recruitment record from France seems to have got patchier as his time at Arsenal have worn on.  It was never perfect – for every Thierry there was a Kaba Diawara or Christopher Wreh – but in recent reasons it seems to have become particularly erratic.  There are success stories like Bacary Sagna and Laurent Koscielny, but the likes of Park Chu-Young, Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho have failed to adapt as expected.  Do you think Arsene’s default instinct to use Ligue 1 as a hunting ground has lead to errors of judgement? 

You naturally turn to what you know, and you can’t know everything. Look at Martinez at Wigan. He is one of very few PL managers who, in terms of recruitment, still think of Scotland as a genuine market (and has exploited it remarkably well). Why? Because he was at Motherwell. Mourinho brought Portuguese-speaking players to Chelsea. Ancelotti and Leonardo at PSG raided Milan, yes, but also Palermo and Pescara (Verratti). You could go on like this forever. Foreign managers will, by default, almost always look towards where they come from.

The players you mention have failed to adapt (there were other examples in the past, by the way. Remember David Grondin?), but each of them failed for different reasons. Park was a – supposedly – cheap punt on a guy who captains his national team. Chamakh’s problem is one of temperament rather than talent. Gervinho is infuriating at times – often -, but can have a genuine impact because of the directness of his play. He seemed to represent good value at the time, ‘seemed’ being the important word: L1 has declined, and rather a lot, since the time Wenger was managing there. He’d been a crucial player in Lille’s title-winning season. I’ll confess that I was amongst those who thought that he was a very decent buy, considering the price LOSC was asking for Hazard (who, by the by, is finding it more difficult by the week after a storming start).

But it’s not Wenger you should be focusing on exclusively, it’s the whole scouting network, which is far more active in some regions than in others, a point I’d make about almost any club you’d care to mention. It surprises me, for example, that the huge pool of talent that is Germany is not better exploited by English clubs, when they’d be able to compete, and very easily, against domestic clubs. I fundamentally agree with you, but don’t think it’s a specific Wenger trait, or problem.

·         Arsenal are light on strikers at the moment.  Do you think there’s any chance of Thierry returning one final time in January of this year?

It looks that way, but I hope that’s not the case. The final chapter was written, and beautifully, last year. There’s no way that a Thierry in his 36th year can do better than what he did eleven months ago, especially when the club has more attacking options than was the case in 2011-12. He would in no case represent a ‘solution’; whereas last year, given the van Persie-dependance, he could make a difference at times. Even with Gervinho off to the ACN, you still have Podolski, Giroud, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, young Gnabry, and, whatever you think of him, Andrei Arshavin, whom I know is rumoured to be on his way out, but could still bring an awful lot to the club, should Wenger share that opinion (which he clearly doesn’t – apologies, I’m very partial to the Russian). I genuinely don’t look forward to another ‘return of the King’.

·         Regardless of whether he returns as a player, do you think Arsenal fans could see him in the dugout at the Emirates at some point in the future?

I doubt it. A question of personality, rather than capacities. Thierry has an encyclopaedic knowledge or world football, and an understanding of the game that is exceptional among current players. But he’s never been a natural leader, even when he was captaining his teams (including France at every age level); I’m not sure he could cope with the media attention either; and he’s very prickly when criticised. But – I’ve just realised that I answered a different question, ie ‘would Thierry make a good Arsenal manager?’, which is perhaps the one we’re all asking ourselves. Bergkamp, on the other hand…

A tantalising way to end. Thanks to Philippe for taking the time to answer my questions. If you’re keen to hear more, then you’re in luck: we’ve got ourselves a copy of the book to give away. All you have to do is answer the following question:

Q. Against which team did Thierry Henry score the last goal of his first spell of the club?

Send your answers to thierry@gunnerblog.com by midnight Sunday (UK-time). The winner will be announced on Monday.

For those of you who a) don’t know the answer to the question, b) know themselves to be unlucky, or c) disagree with internet competitions on ethical ground, you can get yourself a copy of the book through the conventional route here. I’m off to dream of Thierry.

Gunnerblog is the brainchild of childbrained football writer James McNicholas. Aside from Gunnerblog, James currently contributes to Bleacher Report, The Mirror and ESPN.