Thierry Henry is annoyed. He grimaces. He extends his hands for emphasis, palms to the sky. It is a look the world has seen before.
Since the start of a 20-year playing career that included spells at some of the world’s most important football clubs, Henry has held his teammates, the journalists who covered him, and even his managers to the highest standards. He has been quick to express frustration with anyone who wasn’t good enough, didn’t try hard enough or, once, who didn’t push in his chair after a news conference.
Whether he responded with a word or a gesture, it was never hard to tell what he was thinking. He packed an entire narrative into a turn of the hands, a roll of the eyes. “He could score an amazing goal,” says Dennis Bergkamp, who played alongside Henry at Arsenal, “and then a moment later he’d be angry with someone for not passing the ball correctly. That’s the way he was.”
On this January morning, Henry is sitting in the lobby of a generic resort outside Orlando. Soon he’ll be taking his team out for training during a preseason camp. But at the moment, the new coach of the Montreal Impact is gaining momentum in his rant against the elimination brackets that North America’s major sports leagues use to decide their champions. He finds them absurd.
Henry experienced exactly that disappointment with the New York Red Bulls, where he spent the final 4½ seasons of his career. In 2013, the Red Bulls amassed the best regular-season record in MLS. Then they immediately lost their home-and-home conference semifinal to bottom-seed Houston. It wasn’t fair, but it was the system. “Those are the rules,” he says.
So too is the structure that allows teams to sleepwalk through the regular season and flip a switch when the playoffs start. Or worse, lose every game and show up the next year ready to play again, rather than getting relegated as in nearly every other league in the world.
“What happens if you lose?” he asks. “Nothing! Nothing happens. You’re still in MLS, or the NBA, or NFL, or whatever. The rules allow you to just let it go. You shouldn’t let anything go. In Europe, it’s unacceptable. It would never happen. It shouldn’t happen.”
He sighs. “But you have to know where you are,” he says.
A little more than a year ago, Henry was in Monaco, ending a managerial stint that was as short — three months — as it was disappointing. He’s back in MLS now, trying to rehabilitate his reputation while managing with a distinctly different frame of reference. Henry won nearly everything a player can win, but the Impact have been the model of a mediocre franchise, with only three trips to the playoffs in eight MLS seasons, and seven head coaches during that time.
Henry’s task is clear. If he can do a credible job for a couple of years, he’ll put distance between Monaco and his next job. “It could take him back on the managerial ladder in Europe,” says Craig Burley, the former Scotland international and current ESPN commentator.
It seems simple enough. But can Henry accomplish that without getting too annoyed?
THIERRY HENRY APPEARS IN LONDON LAST NOVEMBER when Impact president Kevin Gilmore called to discuss becoming the club’s next head coach. On the face of it, the idea of Henry returning to MLS seemed surprising. He’d been an exemplary player with the Red Bulls, but he frequently exuded the air of someone who was accustomed to better teammates. “That’s because he was,” says Nashville SC midfielder Dax McCarty, who was on that Red Bulls team.
Henry played at Barcelona with Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta and Xavi. He played at Arsenal with Bergkamp and Freddie Ljungberg. He played, albeit briefly, with Alessandro Del Piero at Juventus, and on that exquisite 1998 French World Cup team with Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps. Henry would even occasionally speak sharply to them if they weren’t up to standard.
In New York, he had Rooney behind him — but it was John Rooney, Wayne’s brother, who’d come from Macclesfield Town. Instead of Frank Rijkaard or Ashley Cole at the back, there was Teddy Schneider, who’d hustled through four years at Princeton. Jonny Steele, who had put in time with the Syracuse Salty Dogs, the Puerto Rico Islanders and Ballymena United, roamed the midfield.
“You’re around players who can’t find you when you need to be found,” says Lloyd Sam, who also played on that Red Bulls team, and before that at Leeds and several other English clubs. “He had a standard. He would always ask me, ‘Lloyd, was that high level?'”
But time can alter perspectives. So too can a horrendous first managerial experience. One of France’s richest clubs, Monaco had advanced all the way to the Champions League semi final in 2017. Henry arrived in October 2018. He was gone by the following January after winning just two of 12 league games and four of 19 overall. The disaster didn’t go unnoticed. “Not a lot of people called me after that,” Henry admits.
Henry, so uncompromising, still appeared to be someone who would make a good manager. But which club wanted to take the chance? The Montreal Impact, it turned out. “When somebody does call, you have to take the call,” Henry says. “Montreal came my way, so I assessed the situation. First and foremost, it was a football decision.”
Meaning: It was a job. It didn’t hurt that the city itself — French-speaking, sophisticated, architecturally distinctive — reminded him of the Paris where he grew up or the London where he has chosen to settle. “The culture,” he says. “The restaurants. The diversity. The look. The way of life.”
For the Impact, Henry was a famous name who would inject interest in a team that hasn’t even made the MLS playoffs in the last three seasons. “Obviously from a marketing position, Thierry makes a whole bunch of sense,” says Gilmore, who reportedly didn’t interview any other candidates. Other than the entire roster of the NHL’s Canadiens, Henry instantly becomes the best-known sports figure in town. “And he can speak French,” adds Olivier Renard, the Impact sporting director. “That’s very important in Montreal. In MLS, it’s not so easy to find.”
But Henry made one thing clear: Despite what had happened in Monaco, he was determined to coach the Impact the way he would have done it in Europe. “Every game should matter,” he says now. “I have a clear view of that. A clear view of what I want to do. A clear view of how our team should play. I need time to implement it, but I won’t change it no matter what is happening.
“Because,” he added ominously, “it is important that you die with your convictions.”
the 47-year-old Zidane has set an impossible standard for managerial success at Real Madrid. Nobody else, it is safe to say, will win the Champions League in his first year of running a senior club, and then win it the next year and the year after that.
Who’s second? Maybe Vieira, another Frenchman, who at 43 is a year older than Henry. Vieira won 40 and lost 28 (with 22 draws) as the manager of NYCFC. These days, he’s winning more than he’s losing at Ligue 1’s OGC Nice, not exactly a traditional powerhouse. Or else the Netherlands’ Giovanni van Bronckhorst, 45, who won two Cups and an Eredivisie at Feyenoord. (He’s coaching in China, but is almost certain to be back in Europe eventually.)
Frank Lampard, 41, did so well in his first season at Derby County last season that he was hired to manage Chelsea, stepping into shoes previously worn by Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. David Beckham and Ronaldo, both slightly older than Henry, might have managed, but they’ve chosen to become owners instead.
Then there’s Henry. He retired in 2014 and announced his intention to manage, preferably at Arsenal. “A dream come true,” he said, aspirationally. He understood that he needed credentials, so he began working in Arsenal’s youth program. When Roberto Martinez was hired to run the Belgian national team in 2016, Henry jumped on as the second assistant, which essentially meant coaching the forwards.
By all accounts, Henry was a helpful presence for Belgium. He had no problem telling important players with large personalities, such as Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, exactly what he thought, and he had enough credibility that they wanted to hear it. Unlike Martinez, though, he didn’t sign up for another four years after Belgium finished third at the World Cup. “He wanted to be a head coach,” says Bergkamp.
That October, Monaco suddenly fired Leonardo Jardim and hired Henry, who had started his senior career there a quarter-century before. “He knew the club,” Bergkamp says. “He knew exactly what it meant to be there.”
During that career, Henry had the good fortune to play under some of the world’s finest managers. Put Pep Guardiola at the top of that list, but add Ancelotti, Wenger, Aime Jacquet and the underrated Jean Tigana.
“Arsene was a coach who triggered my brain on a lot of subjects,” Henry says. “Pep triggered my brain tactically. Tigana taught me how to handle a young player.”
Henry only played for Ancelotti briefly, “but he was a players’ manager.” And from Jacquet, he learned to be stubborn. “He had a vision,” Henry says. “No matter what, nobody was going to make him change.”
Henry saw the style he was creating as a mélange of them all. “You learn from everybody, you take a bit from everybody, you make it your own.” He showed up at Monaco perfectly organized, all file cards and training plans. “You could tell that he had learned a lot from very good coaches,” says Benny Henrichs, the Monaco defender. Henrichs could sense the wheels spinning. “We knew exactly what we had to do at all times,” he says. “He gave us a high level of tactics for every game. And our training sessions were always very intense. But we had a lot of injuries, and a lot of young players. It was a difficult situation.”
In the spring of 2017, Monaco capped a four-year run since promotion with its first Ligue 1 title since 2000 and reached the Champions League semifinal. A little more than a year later, expectations remained high. The team was coming off a second-place finish behind Paris Saint-Germain. It was playing in the Champions League again. But of that 2016-17 team, Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar and Benjamin Mendy were all gone by the time Henry arrived. Mbappe was sent to PSG for a fee of nearly $200 million.
That could pay for a lot of art for owner Dmitry Rybolovlev’s collection, which already included Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Rodin and Modigliani. What it didn’t do was acquire players to take the place of those who had moved on. After injuries decimated the squad, Henry became impatient, perhaps with good cause. Only he seemed to know how little time he actually had.