Thierry Henry isn’t happy. The New York Red Bulls captain spent much of his side’s 2-1 defeat at F.C. Dallas flailing his arms at his teammates before conducting a churlishly abrupt post-match interview with MLSsoccer.com.
The Red Bulls need to stick to Head Coach Hans Backe’s game plan if they are to succeed, Henry told reporters Wednesday. It’s hard to see what the strategy was during Sunday’s labored performance. Backe urgently needs to define his captain’s role in this team and Henry needs to step up his own performance if the Red Bulls are to improve on last year’s dismal campaign.
Henry tries to deflect attention off his shoulders by stressing that soccer is a team game. He’s right, but a designated player earning twice the league’s salary cap should be doing more to inspire his side through difficult times than Henry is doing.
The Frenchman should still be capable of carving open Major League Soccer defenses without the electrifying pace that made him such a feared opponent during his Arsenal days. Guillermo Barros Schelotto showed recently what an intelligent, technically gifted forward in his mid-30s can achieve with the proper attitude. Henry turns 35 in August. He’s not 55.
It’s not as if Henry has lost all of his speed either. There were flashes on Sunday where he dropped into midfield, spun away from his marker and ran menacingly at the Dallas defense. Henry won a corner in the 13th minute from such a move. He didn’t show this willingness to carry the ball again until after the interval when he made a trio of similar darting runs in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Henry also told reporters Wednesday that he doesn’t like to drop deep for the ball. This is where he’s at his most dangerous though, receiving possession 30 or 40 yards from goal and attacking the defense with Joel Lindpere, Dane Richards and Juan Agudelo breaking ahead of him. Besides, didn’t the Red Bulls trade Dwayne De Rosario, the league’s Most Valuable Player last year, because his withdrawn playmaking skills clashed with their team captain’s movement?
Henry didn’t drop deep against Dallas in any case. He started off deep and stayed deep. He shirked out of two physical battles in the first five minutes and spent the first half walking between the midfield and an isolated Agudelo. This made it easy for Dallas’ holding midfielders Daniel Hernandez and Andrew Jacobson to mark him when he showed for the ball. It also made it extremely easy for Dallas’ back line to smother New York’s teenage forward.
Zach Loyd capitalized on Markus Holgersson and Dax McCarty’s feeble attempts to clear the ball from their 6-yard box to give Dallas an 11th-minute lead. It didn’t make Henry any sprightlier, save for his 13th-minute break. He seemed reluctant to join the attack and frequently turned the ball over in the first half due to misplaced passes or a lack of urgency in possession.
Two shining examples of the Frenchman’s listlessness came on 26 minutes. Agudelo did well to keep Henry’s overhit pass in play near the left corner flag. Henry should have followed the ball to provide support to his teammate, or made a run into the box to provide a threat for when Roy Miller advanced to cross the ball. He chose a third option – standing still.
Miller eventually received a layoff from Agudelo and played it inside to Henry. The Frenchman then wanted too much time on the ball and lost out as three Dallas players, including their tireless Panamanian forward Blas Perez, converged on him.
Henry wasn’t providing much assistance in the defensive phase either, often standing behind his midfielders. That allowed Dallas to build from the back while an overworked Agudelo fruitlessly chased four defenders.
A lengthy half-time chat with Backe seemed to galvanize Henry in some way after the interval as he started to pose a threat. He drew a corner from Ugo Ihemelu on 50 minutes after his first darting run into the penalty area of the game.
More comical Red Bulls defending made their task harder when Ricardo Villar doubled Dallas’ lead on 61 minutes. Miller’s slack pass allowed Perez to run at New York’s back line, though they still had numerical supremacy until Teemu Tainio inexplicably left Villar to lunge inside at Perez. That finally sparked some zest in Henry who put in his first tackle on a Dallas defender on 65 minutes.
“He’s really putting a shift in, there’s no doubt about it,” proclaimed NBC’s match commentator Arlo White. Not quite, Arlo.
Henry’s distribution improved as the Red Bulls chased the game. He exploited a gaping hole between Dallas defenders Hernan Pertuz and Jair Benitez to release Kenny Cooper for New York’s goal on 78 minutes, and his dangerous inswinging cross four minutes later just eluded the outstretched leg of Holgersson.
His movement remained languid. Henry gained possession on the halfway line on 85 minutes with Victor Palsson and Tainio breaking past him. One of the world’s great forward players in recent years again played the ball and didn’t move forward to follow his pass.
Backe, who remains anchored to a 4-4-2 formation that has lost its preeminence in modern soccer and is losing its hold on MLS, has tough decisions to make if he is to accommodate and appease his captain. Henry has previously said that he doesn’t like staying up front, preferring the freedom to drop deep in pursuit of the ball. Now he says he doesn’t like coming back to ask for the ball.
A 4-2-3-1 system with Henry advanced on the left flank could be an option, though this requires the wingers to put in a shift offensively and defensively. Henry, with a list of injury complaints in the past two years that runs longer than the New Jersey Turnpike, would undoubtedly find some grievances.