Thierry Henry is an extremely recognizable name in the world of football. Many will know Henry from his stint in the invincible Arsenal team and his time with Barcelona. He won many accolades as a player, winning the FIFA World Cup, Premier League and La Liga. These accomplishments seem like the perfect story for anyone in the footballing world. While his achievements as a player are unquestionable, Henry’s stint as a manager has not been the same fairytale.
His first managerial appointment with AS Monaco in Ligue 1 was a terrible spell for the Frenchman. Although Henry was dealt a bad hand because of many injuries and attitude problems, he could not turn around Monaco’s fortunes as the club slipped from 18th to 19th place in the table. In his 104 day spell at the club, Henry only won two league games. the
Since this difficult first job, Henry was recently named head coach of the MLS’ Montreal Impact. Henry is no stranger to the MLS, as he played for the New York Red Bulls as a player towards the end of his career. The Frenchman will be hoping to improve his managerial results as he leads the Impact in his first season as an MLS manager.
Advancing the ball
Formations have been an area Henry is tweaking as he settles into the current MLS season. After two matches, Henry has employed a 3-4-1-2 and a 5-4-1 formation against the New England Revolution and FC Dallas, respectively. While these formations may seem different, where Henry finds common ground is the positioning of his players while in possession of the ball. The former Barcelona star has a fond liking for Pep Guardiola’s tactics, which originated when he played under his management. Possession and attacking football is something that Henry wants to show in his teams, and his tactics have proven that claim to be true.
When attacking, Henry has three centre-backs forming an even line. Each of them holds onto the ball and create space for one another. They are never too far apart so there is always an option to play the ball too. In front of them are the two pivot players, who are extremely important for Henry and his tactics. Samuel Piette and Saphir Taïder, the two midfielders, can be likened to Xavi and Iniesta in a Guardiola team. Although they do not compare in ability, their roles are extremely similar to the great Spaniards. Piette and Taïder are tasked with running the midfield by Henry. In order to do that, they are the facilitators of the ball and are constantly moving together in order to cover the necessary areas of the pitch.
The table below shows the most frequent passing combinations that happened in Henry’s first MLS match (New England Revolutions vs Montreal Impact). In this match, number 6 (Piette) passed to number 8 (Taïder) 14 times, marking the most frequent passing combination on the team. This shows the consistency in which the ball is built up in the midfield. Both players are constantly moving to be an option for each other.
The analysis below shows an example of how tight of a distance Henry demands of his two central midfielders. There are multiple reasons for this. As stated, in this position, they will have options to play the ball to each other. Another reason is the positioning of the midfielders in order to receive a ball from the centre-backs. Piette and Taïder take up positions in the passing lanes available. After receiving a pass, they can combine with each other to move the ball forward. This is one way that Henry forces the ball up the pitch. In the example below, we see an example of the first reason for their proximity – making sure a close passing options is always available
Another way Henry likes to continue to play forward in his attacking style is to use an auxiliary midfielder. Henry creates a fluid type of positioning for his three forwards, allowing them the freedom to come into the midfield to support build-up play with Taïder and Piette. In these situations, the formation can change from a 3-4-2-1 to a 3-4-1-2. This creates confusion for the opposing defenders who have to decide whether they will follow the forward into the midfield areas. Henry’s tactics create a nice pocket of space that allows for the attacks to generate.
An example of this tactic taking effect occurred constantly throughout the opening match against the Revs. Henry utilised the former Barcelona youth prodigy, Bojan Krkic, to be a guinea pig for these tactics. Ironically, this in-match formational switch was similar to how Guardiola put Lionel Messi in the false 9 position, allowing him to drop into the midfield. The irony being Bojan was constantly compared to Messi as a young and upcoming star.
In the analysis below, Bojan is checking into the midfield despite behind the lone striker on the team sheet. Instead of being even with the last defender, Bojan gets on the ball. He is allowed so much space and freedom to collect the ball and turn easily. This is advantageous for Henry as Bojan is one of his more talented attacking players. When on the ball with time, he can pick out key passes and space as seen below.
While this tactic also relates to how Henry advances the ball forward, this especially applies in the case of attacking transitions. After the Impact wins back possession, players are immediately looking high and wide. Henry emphasizes this because of the advantages that wide players can bring to his dynamic attack. Below is the average positioning map from the match against FC Dallas. By focusing your attention on number 15 and 26, you can see the nature of Henry’s demands. Both players are extremely high and wide in these maps.
Getting into wide areas opens up space in the middle of the pitch. Even if the opposing manager tries to overload the midfield with an extra man (to combat the two midfielders Henry utilises), the width of Henry’s side will become more dangerous. The wide players can get in behind easier and will be allowed more time on the ball.
In an attacking transition, this works very effectively. In the analysis below, the ball is won in the midfield after a midfield duel by Piette. He then plays the ball back to Joel Waterman (RCB). Immediately in the transition from defence to attack, the right-wingback, Zachary Brault-Guillard, gets his boots on the touchline in an extremely wide position. This example shows how this tactic can become effective. As the ball is played to Brault-Guillard, the Revolution defence will become more stretched as they go and press the ball.
Henry puts a lot of emphasis on the attacking side of his game, but he also employs some basic principles which allow his team to win the ball back defensively. After two matches in the MLS this season, the Montreal Impact have conceded three goals. Henry regards possession as a necessity, again showing his similarities to his former manager Guardiola. For this reason, Henry’s team desires the ball and will not sit back.
In order to win the ball back while maintaining a fairly wide shape, Henry must be clever in his approach. Because the pitch is stretched, this creates lots of pockets of space for the midfielders. However, in the forward and defensive line, there is a consistent tight-knit group of players that prevent anything easy behind them. The three centre-backs all have a tight position, as do the forwards. This claim is proven in the average formation chart found earlier in the analysis.
The key to Henry’s defensive tactics lies in the space he allows other sides to play into. This can be referred to as a pressing trap – a moment where players will press in a certain way to open up a specific space. Once the opponent plays into the free space allowed, the defending team immediately applies pressure to the player who is in that space. This tactic allows for the defending team to force where the ball will be played and subsequently stifle the attack.
An example of an effective pressing trap is highlighted in the analysis below. Henry designs this trap to win the ball high up the pitch and it originates from the forward line. As mentioned, the three forwards are generally close together allowing for the press to be employed quickly and efficiently. Here, Romell Quioto is pressing the ball closest to the man in possession. He begins to curve his run to prevent the ball played back to the other centre-back. Therefore, the player in possession only has one option to his right as a ball back to the keeper would be risky.
When the ball is played to the right-back, Henry’s pressing trap takes full effect. The Impact are happy to let him receive the ball in space because that space closes down very quickly due to their press. At this moment, two Impact players are rushing to close down the player on the ball at full speed. This action resulted in the Canadian club’s regaining of the ball.
Overall, a key theme that surrounds Henry’s tactics is spacing. In order for his players to execute his demanding style, a good understanding of their positions on the pitch will be crucial as the season resumes. Henry plays a fast-pace, possession style football that focuses on getting the ball into wide areas. He allows his striker’s freedom to move into areas that make it difficult for the opposing side to defend. Defensively, he opens up spaces in which he encourages his team to consume the second the team plays into the trap.
These tactics are just the start of what is to come from Henry’s side. His tactics have the potential to evolve or even alter. The Montreal Impact have only played two matches thus far, but this head coach analysis dives deeper into the tactical mind of Henry and how he is managing his team.