Thierry Henry described it as fate. The announcement was celebrated with a hashtag “#HesComingHome.” The former Monaco youth academy player returning to the club as manager in October had the makings of a modern football fairy tale. Then, the immediacy of reality hit: Henry opened his managerial debut with a 2-1 loss against Strasbourg, followed by a draw and a loss against Reims, then back to back 4-0 losses against Club Brugge and PSG, before finally celebrating his first win as manager against Caen. The optimism of a homecoming quickly turned into a battle for survival as Monaco have lost six matches in ten since Henry took over from Leonardo Jardim. Top flight European soccer is no place for sentiment.
Although these defeats have little to do with Henry. Monaco’s rapid decline since winning Ligue 1 in 2017 lends credence to the idea that the most dangerous time of any organization is immediately after a large success. In just three years, they went from a team loaded with arguably the best young talent in the world in the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, Thomas Lemar, Keita Balde and Fabinho to their current day status battling the relegation zone. That Henry is in this position in the first place shows how far they’d fallen since they came on our Champions League radars three seasons ago, beating Arsenal and going toe-to-toe with Juventus in the quarterfinals with an exciting, uptempo style.
Jardim chose to remember the good times in his farewell statement. He helped develop almost one billion dollars of talent under his four years (add James Rodriguez to his list). The front three during their 2015 Champions League run consisted of Anthony Martial, Yannick Carrasco, and Silva, tallying some $156 million in the transfer market between them. In their 2017 European run, the side that beat Manchester City and Dortmund before losing to Juventus against in the semifinals featured Mbappe, Silva, Mendy, Lemar and Tiemoue Bakayoko.
That trio is a long ways away from Falcao, Sofiane Diop, and Moussa Sylla, their starting front three in the loss against Club Brugge. And these struggles are without even mentioning owner Dmitry Rybolovlev’s arrest over a corruption charge involving a $1 billion art fraud scheme in Monaco. The lack of talent alongside the ownership crisis shows Henry’s folly in taking the position as his first managerial job. And for Monaco, they probably needed a more experienced manager with a talent to get out of tight situations. Yet it was an easy narrative to sell supporters and dreamers alike for both sides, and his legacy and name may be enough to give both club and manager time to figure out a solution.
“Pep Guardiola is the reference for me,” Henry said in his opening press pressure, adding how he “re-learned” how to play the game during his time at Barcelona. I’ll always refer back to his video analysis of Guardiola’s style, of how rigid and exact his sides were in their positioning in the defensive and middle third compared to the freedom of movement in the final third. So three player midfields centered around possession and idealism it is.
Thus, we can call it now: if Henry fails at Monaco, it’s because his ambitions and vision were too high for the quality of his current side. He’s already experimented with a 4-3-3, 3-4-2-1, and 5-3-2 formations. It is one thing to play with freedom when you have Messi and David Villa, Xavi and Iniesta - another thing entirely with a mixed group of teenagers and veterans (Diop is 18, Sylla 19) fighting for survival. The success of Henry’s time at Monaco may come down to how much he’s willing to bend his Guardiola influenced philosophy to the reality of his roster.
Interestingly, Henry seemed to lack those fond descriptions of innovation and idolism when describing what he’d learn from Arsene Wenger. Granted, Henry said that Wenger taught him how to be a professional, but one would assume that the French manager would be his most sought out resource as they both defined an era at Arsenal and in the Premier League. Yet that lukewarm feeling between manager and former player is a trend. Patrick Vieira expressed his disappointment that there weren’t more ex-Arsenal players working in the backroom, stating that “players want to do it but do not have the opportunity”. Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars Sol Campbell, and Mikel Arteta looked elsewhere for managerial opportunities. Wenger even went as far as snubbing Henry’s offer to manage Arsenal’s U-18s for free.
The now-postponed match between Nice and Monaco would have put Henry and Vieira head to head as managers for the first time. Vieira went to MLS to build his coaching chops before taking over in France, while Henry had no such parachute. That transition from a generational talent to manager is one of the many themes we’ll continue to explore throughout the years as we age with our fandom. And from seeing the type of player that Henry was, what kind of manager would you expect him to be? After all, one of the cognitive dissonances of Gennaro Gattuso’s reign at AC Milan is how open and creative his side are, the polar opposite from his snarling, take-no-prisoners style.
It wasn’t Wenger or Guardiola, but Roberto Martinez who gave Henry his first chance as assistant manager for Belgium in 2016. In contrast to specific tactics, Martinez credited Henry for adding a winning “know-how” during their third-place finish in the World Cup. Individually, Romelu Lukaku discussed how Henry taught him how to score goals “out of nowhere”. The World Cup run lead to rumors of Henry taking over at Aston Villa or Bordeaux, but nothing concrete materialized before the Monaco opening. Perhaps here, as Vieira implied, Henry could have used a helping hand from Wenger in gaining more managerial experience so he would have leverage to take on a more stable position as his first role.
So, then, if former superstars are having difficulty breaking into the coaching ranks, where do new managers come from? As many noted, the match between Schalke and Hoffenheim last weekend pitted the two 30-year-old prodigal managers in Domenico Tedesco and Julian Nagelsmann head-to-head. They graduated first and second in the 2016 German FA coaching course, with an emphasis on being on the forefront of pressing innovation and tactics. Contrast that approach with Henry and Vieira’s plight, with Frank Lampard at Derby, Steven Gerrard heading Rangers, and Sol Campbell - another one of Wenger’s spurned pupils - recently taking over League Two’s Macclesfield Town.
In analyzing the differences between Nagelsmann and Henry, we can wonder about the role of top flight experience versus systemic learning in becoming a top manager. Tedesco may be a superior in-game tactician than Henry, but what value does Henry’s winning aura have on a squad, especially with Zinedine Zidane’s success at Real Madrid adding further wrinkles to the equation. And what responsibility does a manager have to give opportunities to former players after their careers are over? There is a world where Henry, Vieira, Arteta, Overmars, and Bergkamp each have their fingerprints over future Arsenal generations. Here, we can divide the Tedesco’s and Henry’s into two distinct styles and routes to top-flight management: the x-factor feel and experience of a former player versus the logic and science of a classroom approach.
Meanwhile, Henry is rumored to being asking for Watford’s Stefano Okaka in the winter transfer market. If he is still set on pushing the standards of innovation like Guardiola, it may be near impossible if his wish list consists of a striker who hasn’t played a single minute this season. One wonders what Henry can get out of this seemingly impossible situation, maybe just to show enough promise to receive another chance in a more stable environment. On the surface, we can write off this season as a learning experience, but it is muddled due to the emotions behind his past with the club. For that, we can add that one truly can never go home again, no matter how enticing. Some fairy tales are better left unexplored.