lThe timing could not have been better really. A day after Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced he was leaving the LA Galaxy and leaving a Zlatan-sized hole in MLS’ star power, the Montreal Impact announced the appointment of Thierry Henry as manager.
First and foremost, Henry, who was officially introduced on Monday, brings name value to the league and is a marketing coup for the Canadian franchise. A superstar player in both Europe and later MLS, the Frenchman remains a massive name in world football and his arrival in Quebec has already attracted headlines from around the world. The club can expect even more global exposure once the MLS season kicks off in February.
However, what the Impact will hope most will be that Henry brings as much success on the pitch as he does limelight off it. The task ahead won’t be easy though, as Montreal finished ninth in the Eastern Conference and 18th of 24 teams overall last season.
Montreal has become something of a manager’s graveyard within the confines of MLS. The Impact have burned through six previous coaches — including recent caretaker manager Wilmer Cabrera — during its eight seasons in the league. Owner Joey Saputo has long had a reputation for meddling in the affairs of his managers, going so far as to make post-game visits to the locker room if he didn’t like what he saw on the field.
Nevertheless, Henry would not have accepted the challenge if he didn’t believe he had a chance to turn the club’s fortunes around. He will surely make some signings in the offseason as a big rebuilding job awaits him with many current players out of contract in December (Bacary Sagna, Rod Fanni, Ignacio Piatti, Samuel Piette and Orji Okwonkwo just to name a few). At least Bojan Krkic, Henry’s former Barcelona teammate, still has one year left on his deal and “Titi” will surely lean on him heavily.
But Henry will like the fact that he will be able to build his squad in the way he wants to. One of the problems he had during his time at Monaco last season was that he inherited an unbalanced squad, aging and with some key players still upset about the sacking of his predecessor, Leonardo Jardim.
And Henry’s stature in the world of soccer may be just what is needed for Saputo to back off. Unlike most foreign managers in MLS, Henry’s time with the New York Red Bulls will make him well aware of the arcane roster rules and salary limitations that the league imposes. The Frenchman knows what he’s getting into.
Whether Henry has the patience to manage players far less talented than he was in charge of in Ligue 1 remains an open question. Henry certainly can’t expect the talent level to be any higher in MLS.
What can Impact fans can expect from the Frenchman? The only way we can judge him as a manager is to look back at his 104 days in charge in the principality club. In terms of results, it was a disaster: four wins, five draws and 11 losses in 20 games with just 23 goals scored and 43 conceded. The team was 19th in Ligue 1 when he arrived and still 19th when he left three months later.
Tactically, the 42-year-old tried a lot of different options, probably too many. In terms of formations, he experimented with: 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 5-4-1, 4-1-4-1, 3-4-2-1, 3-4-1-2 and 5-3-2!
He looked lost at times, but he played mostly with a back five. His philosophy was always to play a possession game and to have a lot of movement. We didn’t see much of it though, maybe because he didn’t have enough time to really implement his ideas or maybe because his message was a bit confusing for the players. That said, he always encouraged his men to play, take risks and be creative.
In his defence, he had a lot of injuries during his time in Monaco, including ones to key players. He had to put a lot of faith very quickly in youth such the Badiashile brothers (Benoit and Loic), Han-Noah Massengo, Sofiane Diop or Moussa Sylla.
For someone with such charisma and such a profile, you would have thought that man-management would be his forte. He had a strong relationship with some of his players but it was mostly difficult with most of the squad. Although he was now the manager, he still behaved like he was one of the players. Back then, sources told ESPN how Henry would tell the players how to, literally, play football at training.
Months after Henry’s dismissal, Aleksandr Golovin, Monaco’s midfielder, revealed more details of the Frenchman’s tenure in an interview with a Russian YouTuber.
“When things were not going well at training, he became nervous and shouted a lot. He would come on the pitch and show us what to do. He would take the ball and tell us to try to get it off him! There were times when we would lose a game and he would get upset with the team and would not talk to us for a whole day! For me, he had not made the transition from player to manager. He was not ready” said Golovin.
With Henry, controversy was never far either. On Dec. 11, he humiliated his 20-year-old goalkeeper, Loic Badiashile, for not properly pushing his chair back under the desk at the end of their pre-match news conference before the Borussia Dortmund game in the Champions League. In his last game in charge, he was caught on camera insulting Kenny Lala, the Strasbourg right-back. There were more incidents
The failure was not just his fault though. There were — and still are — plenty of problems at Monaco. It was very dysfunctional context especially for a first-time manager. Someone with more experience could have dealt better with the situation, not he.
Henry should have learned a lot from his three months there and it certainly should make him a better manager. He had only been Belgium assistant coach before, so a lot that comes with being a manager was new to him. In Montreal, he will certainly be more prepared and more ready than he was in Monaco.
*Editor’s note: This piece also contains contributions from ESPN FC’s United States and MLS correspondent Jeff Carlisle.