Why we get players wrong (and how to get them right)
Billy Carpenter takes us on an odyssey through Descartes, Don Carlo and De Visser in search of clearer thinking - and better scouting.
Thierry Henry’s short time at Juventus cast a long shadow.
He joined the Old Lady in January 1999 from Monaco in a deal valued around £10.5m. The team languished in seventh place. Turmoil simmered, but amidst the chaos, manager Marcello Lippi nonetheless viewed Henry as a promising young central forward, subbing him on when games were in the balance.
After falling to ninth in the table, Lippi quit. Into the fray came Carlo Ancelotti.
Don Carlo was known as a strident, even inflexible, proponent of the 4-4-2. His duties required a growing expertise in realpolitik, as he shepherded an underperforming, under-pressure squad that included World Cup hero Zinedine Zidane and a whole lot of tension.
“At Juventus, with Zidane, I began to understand that it is better to adapt to the players,” said Ancelotti. “When I started coaching, I had a clear idea and I didn’t adapt. At Parma, Roberto Baggio wanted to play as a number 10, and I didn’t change the system. He went to another team. I was wrong, so I started to adapt – and I’m still adapting.”
Ancelotti’s personal evolution affected Henry’s role. He was repositioned as a wide-left midfielder, far away from the goal, and completed many of the duties of a wing-back. Juve’s cavalcade of superstars meant this wasn’t particularly controversial. Though Henry bristled at the amount of tracking back he had to do, he played on the left for the France u-21’s, and staying wide was fundamental to how he understood his own identity on the pitch.
“I'll play [at Juventus] as I did at Monaco, on the wing, either on the left or the right,” he said. “I'm not like David Trezeguet. People shouldn't expect bagfuls of goals from me.”
He initially struggled to cope with some of the responsibilities, and like his eventual Arsenal team-mates Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira, found himself stifled by the constraints of Italian football. He said the style “takes up a lot of my energy and, by the time I'm in a position to shoot, I'm running out of steam." Though his performances eventually improved, he finished his lone season in Italy with 3 goals to his name.
Ancelotti wanted to keep him, but the directors were less effusive in their support.
Then everything changed.
Legend has it that on a plane ride back from Italy in 1999, he serendipitously — or “serendipitously,” depending on whom you believe — ran into Arsène Wenger, the sage of Arsenal, and the man whom Henry referred to as his “spiritual father.” Though Wenger played the young Henry on the wing at Monaco, his appraisal had received a software update. “Thierry, you are wasting your time on the wing. You are a number nine.”
It was a revelation that would not only alter the course of Henry's career, but the story of football itself.
The transfer to North London was more than a reunion with Wenger. It was a rebirth. As Henry recalled, “so many people say that obviously my game has changed since I arrived here and I say that it's good that it changed, otherwise it would show a lack of intelligence. You learn from your mistakes.”
You know what came next: endless trophies, records, and a player universally considered one of the best of all time.
Ancelotti bore witness to it all from a distance.
As he confessed later, when asked about times he’d gotten it wrong: “My mistakes? I did not want Baggio at Parma. Then, at Juventus, I did not notice that Henry was not a winger.”
Later, Ancelotti offered this to Philippe Auclair's book Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top: “I didn't think I could play Henry in the middle. He never told me he could.”
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to SCOUTED Notebook to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.