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Arsenal's burden too much for Henry alone

If the restart of his Arsenal affair is to begin against Leeds tomorrow night, it is almost impossible that Thierry Henry's mind won't at some stage drift back to a rendezvous with the same opposition what must feel like a lifetime ago.

"I've seen most things in this league in the last 25 years. I haven't seen anything like him." So gushed Andy Gray on a warm April evening in 2004, having just witnessed Henry, in all his finery, placing four goals past Leeds.

Some context: this happened during a season loaded with meaning for both clubs. Leeds tumbled out of the top flight, the consequence of the reckless financial gamble they are paying for to this day. As for Arsenal, having swamped Leeds, they went out in their next game to clinch the title at White Hart Lane and eventually finished the league campaign undefeated.

Henry's statistics over the season reflected his dominance. He scored 44 goals in 63 games for club and country. He was voted double player of the year for the second consecutive season. He was almost flawless.

Well, almost. If there was any criticism to level at Henry in his Arsenal pomp it was the notion that he was not the man for the biggest occasions. Rewind just a couple of weeks before his quartet against Leeds, and his team had been aiming for a treble. In four harrowing days their targets were slashed as they were knocked out of the FA Cup and Champions League by Manchester United and Chelsea respectively. When they got back to business in the league, they stumbled against Liverpool. Losing 2-1 at half-time, Arsenal looked like they were on the verge of nervous breakdown. The choke of all chokes was on.

Come the second half Henry shook old Highbury's rafters with a hat-trick to reignite the title charge. It took what one of Arsenal's coaches could only describe as "big balls" to clamber back up from the floor. "When you are a winner, you are never in doubt," Henry proclaimed. "We came out with such hunger."

Henry's attacking accomplices that day were Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg. As soon as Arsene Wenger feels ready to pick his old protégé again, he will be part of a very different Arsenal, with considerably different pressures and aspirations.

In analysing the usefulness of this loan deal, much has been said about how Henry has changed in the five years he has been away. Clearly the turbo charge he once possessed has been replaced by a slower engine, but if the other qualities of touch and intelligence have remained intact, he should be able to make an impression.

But it is just as valid to talk about how the club have changed. Henry has been training with the team for months now. He knows their strengths and weaknesses. He only had to watch the flaws exposed in the defeat to Fulham and the inability to dispatch Wolves to see that whatever help he can muster will be very welcome indeed.

Ask the Arsenal crowd who they would like to see if Robin van Persie is unavailable or needs some assistance. Is it: a) a 34-year-old former legend on loan from the MLS?, Or b) a Morocco striker with one goal all season? Or c) a South Korean who has not been trusted to have one minute of Premier League football since signing in August? We can guess that the answer would be unanimous.

And that scenario explains why the most important aspect of Henry's signing is that it should not be the be-all and end-all of Arsenal's attacking reinforcements this January. As cover for Gervinho and Chamakh during the Africa Cup of Nations this renewal of footballing vows makes plenty of sense. But what happens when Henry jets back to the States?

What happens when the season hits the kind of crunch time that saw Arsenal shudder in '04 and they need a world-class striker to see them through? What happens when the Champions League resumes and the key games in the chase for a top-four finish are in front of them? Who will share the scoring burden with Van Persie then?

To sustain the recovery Arsenal made from their abject start to the season, Henry needs to be the beginning of the January transfer story, not the end of it.


Sunday Indo Sport