Why Arsène Wenger and Arsenal have to move on from Thierry Henry
It is less than a month to the anniversary of Thierry Henry's first game as loan player at Arsenal when, as a 68th-minute substitute for Marouane Chamakh, he scored the winning goal in the FA Cup third-round tie against Leeds United and the Emirates went berserk.
It was a crazy end to the night and, needless to say, Henry wrung every last drop out of it. To deny him his moment would have been flint-hearted but once the smoke had cleared and everyone had calmed down a bit, you could take stock of exactly what had happened. It was an injury-time winner against a Championship team in what was the last competition Arsenal had a realistic chance of winning.
Yes, it had been scored by arguably the club's greatest player, but as for season-defining moments it was not even in the top four. Those were the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United in August; the League Cup elimination at home to Manchester City; the 4-0 tonking away to Milan that did for the Champions League hopes; and the fifth-round FA Cup defeat to Sunderland.
Nevertheless, on that night in January with Henry back life felt good for Arsenal. He scored a late winner at Sunderland in February in the league and another against Blackburn that was later chalked off his tally by the dubious goals panel. There were also matches, such as Swansea, Bolton and Milan away, in which he came on and Arsenal did not win. But, all in all, it was a handy return on a loan signing. That it happened to include a feel-good love-in for the fans was a bonus.
Next month, he is coming back again – a case of Henry the First, Part III. Not just coming back for January but, if Henry gets his way, until the end of the season if he obtains the permission of the New York Red Bulls. What a bad idea.
He may yet add to that total of 228 goals for the club. He may even score a winner like that one against Leeds and the Emirates can party like it is 2004 again. He will offer some cover for Gervinho, away at the African Nations. But it will say a great deal about Arsenal, a club that pines for the past – and its old certainties about the kind of teams that were capable of winning the Premier League – but is struggling with the present.
Bringing back Henry would be one more small acceptance that Arsenal have failed to move on from the better times he represents. Whatever the frustrations with Gervinho and Chamakh – and there are many – there has to be a better option than a 35-year-old, however talented, who is strolling through his last years in a substandard American league (and if you disagree with that, just peruse, for example, the CVs of the MLS-winning LA Galaxy squad outside of its three star players).
It brings to mind Sir Alex Ferguson's old analogy of Manchester United being, for players, "a bus that is always moving" and which waits for no one. Once you get left behind, you are never invited back on. While Ferguson would admit, with hindsight, that some players have been ditched too early, that is the kind of collateral you have to accept to create such a deadly competitive environment.
At Arsenal, the metaphorical bus does not plough on, rather it doubles back, like an airport shuttle winding its way around a car park for the umpteenth time. Henry for a third time? It would be a record but returning players are hardly unprecedented. Sol Campbell came back in 2010, Jens Lehmann the year after. Robert Pires was training at the club this time last year. So too David Beckham in 2008 and as far as anyone can remember he never even played for Arsenal.
None of the players who were re-signed in the short term were a disaster. Campbell was perhaps the biggest success of all. But their comings and goings hardly pointed to a club ruthlessly heading in one direction, or an environment focused on the future and closed off from past triumphs.
As Arsenal head to Reading tonight after six days from hell since elimination at the hands of Bradford in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday night, there are 101 reasons to pick holes. Even so, the picture is still not completely clear. How much does Arsène Wenger really have to spend? Could Ivan Gazidis be right: will Uefa's financial fair play have such sharp teeth that, by the start of the 2014-2015 season, his club will be one of the five strongest in world football? Why have they lost their edge?
It is a personal view that the rest of the world has caught up with the innovative Wenger method. His contacts and foresight to identify and sign top-level foreign players long before most English clubs had put any real resources into it meant that Arsenal took the game by storm for almost 10 years from when he started in 1996. Then the rest wised up and gradually Wenger's advantage has been whittled away. That is before we get on to the nouveau riche of the Premier League.
Many of these factors will take time to play out definitively, certainly over the last 18 months of Wenger's contract. If Arsenal sign Klaas-Jan Huntelaar next month, then that will suggest a decisiveness about the immediate future. Olivier Giroud should get better. But both these strikers would have enough pressure on them without the club's most prolific goalscorer peering over their shoulder. Henry does love to be the centre of attention too.
Henry's return gives Arsenal that brief hit of sweet nostalgia. But to the rest of the players, and certainly the rest of football, it feels like Arsenal listening to those inner voices of denial that the world has changed. They need to move on.
Great players like Henry deserve a place at the club. It is watching from the stand or, in his case, immortalised in bronze outside as well. But bringing him back to play? You look like the hotel lobby pianist who plays the same tune over and over again. He does not do so just because he likes it, but also because it is the only one he knows.