In the summer of 2004, fresh off a successful domestic campaign where Arsenal won the Premier League and set all sorts of records, Patrick Vieira was a wanted man across Europe. An inspirational captain and a commanding midfielder who contributed with more than his share of goals, Arsenal considered themselves lucky to “hold on” to him when the summer ended. Real Madrid had been chasing Vieira all summer (a price tag of $25 million or so), and while we’ll never know what really happened, it’s safe to assume that David Dein and Arsene Wenger did everything in their power to keep Vieira at Highbury.
Fast-forward one year – Arsenal come in second, and Vieira, after a disappointing season by his standards, was shipped off to Juventus without much ceremony. Vieira would later go on to say that the Arsenal management didn’t really want him to stay, but that’s Vieira, and maybe all the begging from last summer had gone to his head.
But what has all this got to do with Thierry Henry?
Henry finds himself in much the same position as Viera did towards the end of the 2004 campaign, except that this time Henry is valued more and the hype is inevitably greater. Nevermind that he has a (undeserved?) reputation for choking on the big stage – with Henry on song Arsenal feel they can take on the world (but maybe not Man U and Chelsea – at least not on recent results).
But this is Henry at his peak. This is when most clubs will be willing to part with a fortune to get him in their squads. History is prone to repeat itself, and while Arsenal would ideally not want to lose Henry (now or later), they must prepare themselves for life without him (as Arsenal did with Vieira by bringing in Fabregas). They already seem to have gone down that road with Theo Walcott, but will he be able to fill in next year assuming Henry leaves?
Henry is more loyal than Vieira, but definitely as ambitious. He wants the Champions League, and the most ominous sign that his ambition may overcome is loyalties to Wenger and Arsenal is his statement that he will decide on his future after the season is over – it’s fair to the man, but not fair to the club. The uncertainty has hurt Arsenal, more off the pitch than on it, and suddenly Arsenal looks like a club that cannot hold on to its biggest stars. I wonder if Fabregas is thinking of jumping ship as well…
From a strictly idealist view, I want to see Henry play at Ashburton Grove next year, and a few years after that as well. Arsenal are not the same dreamy club without him.
From a business point of view, however, Wenger has to sell Henry this summer. He will not get the same value for the player next season, especially if Henry ends up helping Arsenal win the Champions League final (they have to get there first, but that’s a different story). The hype surrounding him this year cannot go any higher (Henry will have to help Arsenal beat Chelsea for that to happen, and for the life of me I can’t see that happening). Sell him now and Arsenal will have enough money to buy 3 more players (a defender, a striker and a midfielder) – with Bergkamp leaving they wouldn’t want to part with Henry, but they still have Pires and Ljunberg who can back up the strikers, and they just might survive.
Life is never ideal. More so in football (ref. Beckham leaving Manchester United). You cannot question Henry’s loyalty, but it will be a mistake to think that the man will put the club ahead of his own interests.
At the end though, Wenger knows Henry best, and the decision will fall on him. It’s not an easy one to make.