I was going to write a type of homage to Diego Milito during the transfer window as I anticipated that a move to a bigger club was imminent for the Zaragoza striker.
Milito was heavily linked with Tottenham and Manchester City (who, strangely in my opinion, opted for Benjani) during the January sales. Since no transfer has materialized, I thought I’d have a crack (of the whip) at the Henry move to Barça, whilst demonstrating that Milito represented over the summer and continues to represent a far finer prospect for the culé ranks.
Please note: I am not suggesting that Milito is a better footballer than Henry, and it would be preposterous to attempt to do so. However, I do believe that Milito would have been a much better investment on the part of the Catalan giants.
Whilst Thierry Henry has lived more than three score ten years, Diego Milito is only 28 and can be expected to be firing on all cylinders for at least another two to three years. Henry’s career is arguably in decline, whilst Milito continues to flourish: what’s more, the age difference of two years assumes especial importance when we consider that Milito’s game is not dependent on pace in the same way that Henry’s is, for which reason the Frenchman is likely to be less valuable as a goalscorer (not as a playmaker, however) than the Argentine over the coming years.
Parallel to a downturn in form, Thierry Henry has increasingly suffered from injury problems. In his final season at Arsenal, Henry took part in just 17 matches and missed over 3 months of the season, whilst his debut season with Barcelona has been marred by a series of niggly injuries which have prevented his form from taking off and made consistency hard to come by. Henry has not completed 35 games in a season since the 2003/04 season. In contrast, one has to go back to the 2001/02 campaign for the last time Diego Milito played fewer than 34 games in a season (for Zaragoza he has played 36 and 37 respectively), and this despite the strain of playing the odd international fixture in Argentina.
For many, Thierry Henry’s move to Barcelona, just a season after he had guaranteed that he was a Gunner for life, was a matter of a financial jackpot and a convenient exit door for Henry following a messy break-up with English wife Nicole Merry. Henry has won almost everything there is to win in the game — although the counter-argument would be that the one trophy for which he yearns so dearly, the Champions League, is far more likely to be won at Barça. Diego Milito, however, would be hungry to prove himself at the highest level, having never played in the Champions League and still chasing his first major trophy in European football.
4. Henry move was inopportune
When news spread at the end of the 2005-6 season of Barça’s plans to sign Henry, I was all for the move. This was, I argued, a chance to see two of the greatest players of our generation (Ronaldinho and Henry, in case you need me to specify) playing together in a team that were at the top of the[ir] game. One year on, this was no longer the case. Henry and Ronaldinho were in types of slump, Barça were a club in mini-crisis requiring the acquisition of certain characters, and of team unity, in order to pull through. Henry’s purchase could only rock an already creaky boat, and simply didn’t make sense on a footballing level: at that juncture, it smacked of a publicity stunt designed to further boost shirt sales, especially since the (badly needed, I might add) signings of Abidal and Milito lacked the “wow” factor. Equally, the enormous success enjoyed by Henry at Arsenal meant that the larger-than-life shadow of his Gunner days would always hang over the new “Barça model”, not an ideal situation for a new club fleeing from its last-season demons.
5. Ego and lifestyle
Diego Milito is the consummate professional, a team player who eschews the headlines and keeps out of trouble on and off the pitch — a factor which is important when tongues are already wagging about your players’ off-field antics (Ronaldinho, Deco, Messi etc.). Even during a turbulent season such as this one for Zaragoza, in which two coaches have already left the club, Milito has shied away from the media and kept his head down, Paul Scholes-like. Incidentally, Milito is happily married (to an Aragonese, no less, so he has proper links to Zaragozan soil). Milito is an excellent leader and as club captain has held together a Zaragoza squad threatened by mutiny throughout the season with pride and class.
Thierry Henry, however, courts publicity, is involved in a number of high-profile advertising programs, and is known for his arrogance and self-presence; these are not unenviable qualities in themselves, but are not necessarily the best ones when one is attempting to forge a team with a bunch of talented by disunited individuals, including the already formidable egos of Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho (the former had reputedly been upset by having to remain in the latter’s shadow). Milito’s lack of ego also means that he would have been much happier to sit on the bench and effectively operate as a squad player than Titi ever could be.
Equally, Milito’s low media profile (there are almost 30 times as many hits on Google for Henry than for Milito) would have permitted him a little slack in terms of adapting to his new environment, whereas the Henry hype and media myth meant that as soon as the former Arsenal forward pitched up in Barcelona, nothing short of 10 goals in 10 games would be enough to satisfy the ruthless Spanish (and Catalan) media and save Henry a roasting.
6. Style of play
Barça’s purchase of Henry was baffling on footballing terms, since the club already had a surplus of striking talent, and particularly of forwards in the Henry mould: that is to say, unorthodox strikers who like to play up the wings and cut in (Ronaldinho, Messi) and a wealth of talent from direct set pieces. What’s more, Barça had a pair of young forwards in Gio and Bojan knocking on the door of first-team action, neither of whom needed to find another “mega-star” blocking their path (although Henry’s relationship with Bojan is one of the few strong-points of his arrival).
What Barça didn’t, and do not have — indeed, have not had for some time — is a traditional number 9 who is not only a natural striker (as is Eto’o, for example), but can also hold the ball up superbly (I can think of few strikers over the world who do a better job: only Drogba and Van Nistelrooy spring immediately to find) and is a massive threat from set pieces. How many goals do Barça’s strikers score from headers, either through in-play crossing or from set-pieces? Whilst it is unlikely that Milito’s arrival would have signalled a change in the team’s traditional style of play, which revolves around intricate midfield passing and through balls, the Argentinian’s presence on the bench would have provided the azulgrana with an entirely different option when things weren’t working too well.
7. Brotherly love and symmetry
Not a major factor, but who doesn’t love a bit of sibling love and symmetry? Gabi Milito was one of FC Barcelona’s major transfer targets this summer, and the brothers Milito, who are very close, performed excellently in tandem for Zaragoza. Signing both Diego and Gabi might have lowered the overall expenditure (hardly buy one Milito, get one free, but Zaragoza surely would have been willing to throw in some type of discount!) and would surely have facilitated the integration and adaptation of both (in)to the Barça set-up. That said, Gabi has hardly had a problem settling in to his new home.
I was always one of those who loved to pair up brothers on Championship Manager — I especially enjoyed being Juventus in the 1998-9 version and purchasing Simone Inzaghi from Lazio, giving me the unstoppable frontline of Inzaghi (S) and Inzaghi (P). Since Kolo and Yaya don’t seem to want to play together and the two Nevilles have been wrenched apart, it would be rendering a service to football to have united the Militos under the cupula of the Camp Nou. What’s more, if Joan Laporta really wants to create a “family” atmosphere in a divided dressing room, what better way than to bring two brothers into the squad? (I’m only half joking here).
8. La Liga experience
Diego Milito has two terrific La Liga seasons under his belt, including an excellent last campaign in which he took the fight for the Pichichi to the last weekend before losing out (23 goals to 25) to Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Milito has continued in the same vein this season, and is currently one place beneath Luis Fabiano at the top of the goalscoring charts (14 goals to 16), whilst being part of the most fruitful attacking partnership in the league — he and Ricardo Oliveira have together contributed 23 goals to the Zaragoza cause. As such, Milito would have been able to slot seamlessly into Barça’s line-up with no adaptation period. Henry, on the other hand, had been playing in the Premier League for the previous 8 seasons, and would need careful insertion into the Barça line-up in front of an impatient and impetuous local crowd. Eto’o’s injury, impossible to predict of course, denied Titi this luxury, and following a slow, off-the pace start for Henry it’s been downhill (a rollercoaster downhill, but downhill nevertheless) ever since.
As well as having formidable La Liga experience, Milito is a native Spanish speaker, a factor which should not be underestimated when considering the speed with which players can adapt to new environments. Henry, a non Hispanophone, could call upon the support of compatriots Abidal (also a newcomer) and Thuram, but his insertion has certainly been harder than Milito’s might have been.
10. Milito’s popularity amongst culés
Signing both Milito brothers would have been the equivalent of the Real Madrid higher-ups turning up to work naked and realizing that it wasn’t just a bad dream. Real had pursued both players and to see the duo turn up at Barcelona would have been a serious kick in the teeth — especially since Milito has already etched his name somewhat into Catalan folklore, having accounted for 4 of the 6 goals in Zaragoza’s amazing 6-1 Copa del Rey demolition of Real Madrid in 2006. Henry, on the other hand, was a popular choice due to his media presence, his savvy personality and his footballing skill — all in the Barça tradition — but had come in for some stick from Barça fans for his actions in the Champions League final, as well as for having turned his nose up at a move to the Camp Nou just one year before.
Although “What if’s” are a penny a dozen in football, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, I truly believe that the acquisition of Thierry Henry was a major mistake on the part of the Barcelona hierarchy. With the (admittedly very laughable) news today that Kevin Keegan may attempt a raid on Barça for Henry (okay, I know that it’s the media inflating a non-story, since all Keegan stated was that Henry would be the one player he would sign if he could), alongside the continued reports that the ex-Arsenal frontman is unsettled in Barcelona, perhaps it may not be too late to wave adieu to Titi and amend last season’s mistake.