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The legend makes a fairy-tale return as Henry steals the limelight

Arsenal 1 Leeds 0

Henry 78

Leeds fans must be sick of the sight of Thierry Henry. The last time he lined up against them for Arsenal in April 2004 he put four goals past them in a 5-0 demolition, and they were subsequently relegated from the Premier League. In his return to the Emirates Stadium at the age of 34, Henry came off the bench to illuminate a lacklustre game with a trademark finish to send Arsenal into the fourth round of the FA Cup at Leeds’ expense. The truly great players write their own scripts, and no other player in Arsenal’s history is as comfortable in the limelight as their all-time leading goalscorer.

Arsene Wenger had promised to field a strong side and was true to his word, despite the absences of Per Mertesacker and Tomas Rosicky through illness. The regular starting midfield trio was kept intact, while up front Andrey Arshavin and 18-year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain flanked Moroccan striker Marouane Chamakh in his last game before departing for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Szczesny

Coquelin – Squillaci – Koscielny – Miquel

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Oxlade-Chamberlain – Chamakh – Arshavin

When the two teams met at the same stage of the competition last season, Arsenal needed an injury-time penalty from Cesc Fabregas to salvage a 1-1 draw before easing to a 3-1 win in the replay at Elland Road.

Firing blanks

A tepid first half in which neither team could muster a shot on target saw Arsenal dominate possession, but with little threat in front of goal.

Oxlade-Chamberlain impressed again (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The game started promisingly enough, with a lively looking Andrey Arshavin working himself into shooting positions on the edge of the Leeds area twice in the opening four minutes, only to blast over on each occasion. For the first 20 minutes or so, Arshavin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain bristled with intent on the flanks, but with Marouane Chamakh unable to lose his markers there was precious little for either winger to aim for.

Beyond the two wide men the home side created hardly anything of note. Sebastien Squillaci headed wide from a devilish free kick delivery by Mikel Arteta. Aaron Ramsey had a couple of pot shots from distance, the second at the end of an attack ignited by a dashing run by Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Despite conceding the lion’s share of possession Leeds stayed solid defensively, slowing the tempo of the game and giving a good account of themselves. Their only meaningful chance of the half came on 24 minutes, only for Argentine striker Luciano Becchio to fire off target inside the box.

Shortly afterwards, stand-in right back Francis Coquelin pulled up clutching his hamstring at the end of a long run, and had to be replaced by teenager Nico Yennaris. Coquelin joined Bacary Sagna, Carl Jenkinson, Johan Djourou, Kieran Gibbs, Andre Santos and Thomas Vermaelen to become the seventh Arsenal full back out injured.

The half petered to a rather tame conclusion after that, with only a late Ramsey effort, deflected harmlessly behind, enough to even mildly elevate the heart-rate.

Henry steals the Oxlade-Chamberlain show

Arsenal injected a degree of pace at the start of the second half, with Oxlade-Chamberlain virtually turning the third quarter of the game into a one-man show. A coruscating early run ended in him dragging a left-footed shot wide of the near post. Another run down the left saw him squeeze in a cross despite being shepherded by two defenders, but Arteta’s shot was turned away by Andrew Lonergan low to his left. Three further attempts on goal followed before both he and Chamakh were finally withdrawn from action.

Henry capped his return to the Emirates with the only goal of the game (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Their replacements? Theo Walcott, wearing the number 14 made famous by Arsenal’s all-time leading goalscorer. And the legend himself, the man whose image was recently commemorated with one of three bronze statues outside Emirates Stadium: Thierry Henry.

Henry’s arrival seemed to lift both the crowd and his team as Arsenal continued to press forward as they sought to break the deadlock. And there was a certain inevitability about the way the script unfolded. With the match approaching its concluding stages, Alex Song picked Henry out with a delicate through ball as he pulled off the shoulder of right back Zac Thompson. In familiar fashion, he opened up his body and almost casually stroked the ball across Lonergan and just inside the far past for his 227th Arsenal goal. Wearing number 12, it was also his 12th goal against Leeds in his 12th appearance against them – and it came with 12 minutes remaining.

Stunned, Leeds mounted a spirited response, with Michael Brown, Ross McCormack and former Chelsea striker Mikael Forssell all forcing saves from Wojciech Szczesny. But there was to be no spoiling Henry’s fairy-tale return. It was almost as if he had never left.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Unsurprisingly, most of the questions addressed to Arsene Wenger after the game focussed on his returning goalscorer. He said:

He has seen it all and done it all. You could see when he came on he had a presence on the pitch and if we could find him, he would be dangerous. He was sharp physically. He was already a legend here and now has added a bit more to the story.

He was not surprised by Henry’s incisive contribution:

Already in training I have seen that he was sharp and ready to play. I would not put him on the pitch with what he has done here if he was not ready because that would be unfair. He is a special player.

And he was asked about whether Henry’s goal was ‘dream-like’:

Yes, it was a little bit of a dream, because it was a story about football you would tell some young children. Unfortunately it is not often like that in our game, but sometimes it happens.

When he got in that position I thought “oh, that’s your angle” but it was a bit too close. That’s where he surprised me. He still didn’t force the shot, he still made it look easy, where I would have expected him to take a very strong inside shot. He made it just look easy. That was the Thierry Henry finishing.

When asked about whether he would consider playing Henry and van Persie together, he replied:

I haven’t decided yet. Robin will be back against Swansea. Will Thierry start or not? I don’t know yet. He can play behind or in front of Robin or on the flank, Robin can play on the flank too, but I don’t know yet what I will do. They can play together, of course.

And finally he had this to say about signing some emergency cover for his injury-ravaged defence:

I hope I can get Djourou back for Sunday and if we find a solution we will take it. At the moment we are not close [to a deal].

Henry will justifiably dominate tomorrow’s headlines for his trademark finish from his only effort on goal in an efficient 23-minute cameo. However, it should not detract from an overall team performance which was solid if unspectacular in every respect except one.

The foundations for victory were laid by the midfield of Arteta, Song and Ramsey. The first two were quietly efficient all night, bossing the centre of the pitch and distributing the ball well, with both completing 94% of their passes. Ramsey was slightly less accurate with his passing (87% completion) but far from wayward, and showed signs of a return to his energetic form of earlier in the season as he regularly surged forward in support of the front three.

Up front Oxlade-Chamberlain and Arshavin were both extremely lively – the Russian put in arguably his best performance of the season – but both were let down by Chamakh’s immobility. Too often he was static and unable to shake off his defender, and he rarely showed the ability to provide the kind of incisive movement which either Henry or captain Robin van Persie can regularly provide. The Moroccan seems paralysed by a lack of confidence, and Wenger can only hope that regular starts at the Africa Cup of Nations will help him rediscover some form.

The defence was barely troubled all night, although both Yennaris and Ignasi Miquel should be credited for strong performances where they slotted into the side without missing a beat. With Arsenal now stripped down to the bare bones defensively, both are likely to be required for first team action again in the next few weeks.

Lacklustre though Arsenal’s performance was, particularly in the first half, they nonetheless managed 24 attempts on goal and controlled 67% of possession. Defensive injuries aside, their biggest issue remains their lack of a cutting edge whenever van Persie is absent – a focal point which the ineffective Chamakh singularly failed to provide. With Henry no more than a short-term fix as an impact sub and Park Ju Young seemingly not trusted to start up front, the need for reinforcements up front is, if anything, even more urgent than a short-term deal for a full back.

For now, however, Arsenal have booked a fourth round tie at home to Aston Villa in three weeks’ time, and they will travel to Swansea on Sunday in good heart for a tricky fixture against a side who have lost just once at home in the league (1-0 to Manchester United) all season.

Arsenal man of the match: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Again underlined his immense potential by taking charge of the game almost single-handed after half-time. Henry scored the goal and earned the plaudits, but it was the young winger who ran the Leeds defence ragged before his arrival.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

3 Responses to The legend makes a fairy-tale return as Henry steals the limelight

  1. luke says:

    Solid write up.

  2. Pingback: No defence for Arsenal as Ramsey suffers kitchen nightmare « The armchair sports fan

  3. Pingback: The week in numbers: w/e 15/1/12 « The armchair sports fan

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