For his last few seasons at Arsenal Thierry Henry was the best player in England, and arguably the world. Over the past couple of years Arsenal have been praised for the quality and style of their football, but have often flattered to deceive in the title race.
This season they seem to be serious challengers to Chelsea and Manchester United and have their best chance to win the big one since they last did so in 2004.
The reason that Arsenal are a better team without Henry was demonstrated perfectly in their three nil demolition of London neighbours Fulham. Two of the goals were scored by Emanuel Adabayor the 6’4″ Togo international striker.
It was not the fact that Adabayor scored the goals that demonstrates the difference; it was the nature of how they were scored. Both goals were good old fashioned centre forward’s headers converted from crosses from wide players. Prior to this season, Arsenal rarely, if ever, scored such a goal.
Despite the obvious brilliance of Henry, teams knew that they could stifle Arsenal by ‘getting in their face’ and sitting deep, not allowing Henry to exploit his pace. Teams could be sure that Arsenal would try to pass the ball into the net, and would work predominantly through the middle of the field, and always look to get Henry on the ball. Their opponents could flood the midfield and play narrow. They could man mark Henry, and if done successfully, which was no easy task, Arsenal could be made to look ordinary.
This season Arsenal are a much more multi-dimensional side. They still pass the ball swiftly and sharply. They can still pass the ball into the goal, but there are other strings to their bow. They can now knock the ball into the channels where Adabayor is a willing runner. More importantly, they can get the ball wide and deliver crosses, knowing that the big striker will be challenging for the ball.
Adabayor has scored twenty-seven goals for Arsenal in sixty-three games. His record this season shows fifteen goals in twenty-three starts. This shows that he has relished the extra responsibility placed on him since Henry’s departure.
The whole of the Arsenal midfield have also responded positively to the loss of their talisman. Rosicky and Hleb, who both looked a little short last season, are now performing like the world class players they were believed to be and have chipped in with seven and four goals respectively.
Fabrigas has taken on the mantle of being the Gunners’ best player and he has looked magnificent in taking his personal goal tally to eleven. Even Flamini, a bit part player in the Henry years, has flourished since the star left for Barcelona.
Last season and before Arsenal only seemed to have a Plan A. Pass the ball around until Henry finds space and give him the ball. Now, Arsenal have a Plan A, B and C, and have therefore become a much more difficult team to play against.
It was hard to see how any team could be better without Thierry Henry, but that is just what has happened down at The Emirates.