18 December 2014

Grooming the King to be the Manager: could Henry succeed?

Tuesday may have delivered the most-welcome news any Gooner could have heard: the retirement of Thierry Henry from competitive football. Though he may already put himself out to pasture by playing in the MLS for the last four years, he finally made the news official, bringing to an end one of the most illustrious careers in modern football. He goes into the books as Arsenal's most-legendary player, perhaps also topping the list of the Prem's best-ever, and carries a CV that would be the envy of footballers in any league or country. His retirement should be bittersweet, as it closes the book on such a storied career. However, Gooners, always with an eye for an angle, interpret the news as just one more step towards an inexorable reunion—this time with Henry as manager.

A potential super-sub...
After so many memorable moments in his time at Arsenal, one would be hard-pressed to pen a return more-dramatic than the one we witnessed when Henry returned to Arsenal in 2012. His goal against Leeds in the FA Cup may not have been the most seismic goal he ever scored, but it was perhaps the most symbolic. Henry described it this way:
I never thought I'd play for Arsenal again, let alone score the winner. I don't know what to say, to be honest. The feeling I had when I scored was amazing. I am enjoying the club as a fan where I wasn't before: now, I know how people feel when they score for the club they support.
Who wouldn't want such a player managing the club? He's a legend. He knows the game inside and out. He loves the club. The only logical conclusion is to let the man manage the club he did so much and feels so much for. What could go wrong?

Here's what could go wrong: a brilliant player, such as Henry, sometimes makes for the worst manager. What is easy and intuitive to him confounds and flummoxes others—how could you not see that gap? and how could you not anticipate your teammate's run? Would Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic make for a good manager? I doubt it. The qualities that make them so valuable on the pitch would reduce them to venomous alongside it: ruthlessness. Impatience. Imperiosity. Arrogance. Long story short, one does not rise to the pinnacles of his profession through other, more-virtuous qualities such as humility or compassion.

Nonetheless, there's a seductiveness to the notion, a willingness and desire to believe that a great player will return to lead the club to glory, instilling in the players the qualities that made that player so great in the first place. Surely, we may beguile ourselves, the mere presence of Henry as a manager will propel Walcott and Welbeck, as easily as osmosis, to understand what it takes to score again and again and again, much as the master once did.

However, there's a risk that the very same qualities that made Henry so jaw-droppingly great as a player would prevent him from becoming as great as a manager. As one analogy, try explaining to a three-year-old how to tie a shoe. It's become so easy to you (I hope) that the explaining is almost too hard. What's to explain? Your fingers just do it, don't they? There's no thinking to it. It just...happens. The child, however, makes a meal of it, wrapping the ends 'round each other without ever tying a knot. Along the way, they somehow—inevitably, it seems—put the shoe on the wrong foot. Take the exasperation you each feel and magnify it by the size of the contract someone like Henry might sign. So might it be for a footballer of Henry's level to explain to another footballer how to time a run or slot a shot.

However, there is something deeper when we ponder Henry's future as a potential manager. He seems like a serious student of the game in a way that might prepare him to manage a club. Amy Lawrence, writing for the BBC, put it like this:
His knowledge was unusually precise—perhaps displaying a hint of a manager's eye—throughout his playing days. It was not uncommon for Henry to surprise a journalist whose opinion he disagreed with with a phone call in order to politely pick apart a theory he couldn't accept.
There's a lot in that to dissect, but the largest take-away has to be that aside—"a hint of a manager's eye". It's one thing to know what happened and what should have or might have happened; it's quite another to see it from a vantage-point that allows one to explain it in layman's terms to someone else. If Henry can manage that—if—well, then, he might prove Arsène to be a genius all over again, if only accidentally.

Henry seems to anticipate that when he says the following:
You have to prove yourself first, you have to learn first. You need to be able to understand what it is to be a manager. Can you teach? Can you be patient? All these problems. People think they are all managers in their own way, but it’s not that easy.The plan is to start my badges, and I guess Arsenal will help me. To pass your badges, you have to work closely with a club, and I would like to think it is going to be Arsenal.
For as great as he was a player, he seems to understand that managing other players is something else entirely. A more-presumptous player might look down his nose at the notion of earning badges or apprenticing under someone else—"someone else" here serving as a euphemism for "someone who loves the game but who never played it very well". History teems with managers whose playing careers never amounted to much. Perhaps because they spent so much time observing the game rather than playing it, they noticed nuances that escaped their more-skilled teammates and can therefore explain it from a learner's point of view, rather than from an expert's.

Time will tell if Thierry can still see the game from the learner's point of view, but the early signs are encouraging. His new role with Sky Sports should offer him an opportunity to hone his managerial bona fides. Absent the pressure of producing results on the pitch, he might enjoy the opportunity to develop his more-analytical side. Whether he's working informally in training with Welbeck, Walcott, Alexis, and others; or training up himself for a more-formal assistant manager's role with an eye towards targets bigger and brighter, it's hard to resist the excitement inspired by the by-line "Henry returns to Arsenal".