Monday, June 25, 2007

Thoughts on Henry the Catalan

How cool that every time I'm driving from Atlanta to Macon, I go through (Thierry) Henry County and now it will have added significance.

Some may say that Henry came to Barca because of its liberal ethos or its cavalcade of offensive talent to play with him. Others may say that he's unsettled by David Dein's departure, Arsene Wenger's uncertain future, or Arsenal's lack of vigor in the transfer market. The discerning fan knows that Henry is headed to Catalunya because of his desire to pilot speeders through Endor and shoot goals while Ewoks cheer wildly:

(If you don't think that the little man is being indoctrinated with YouTube, you're sorely mistaken. And the unexpected benefit is that Der Wife is taking the lead in teaching El Himno del Barca, which means that she can belt it out now, as well. This might be my crowning achievement in indoctrination. I digress.)

On a personal level, I've never liked Henry much for three reasons. First, he was Ronaldinho's rival for the title of best player in the world. Second, his whining after the Champions League final (when his inability to finish two good chances was as much a reason for Arsenal's defeat as anything else) was unbecoming, especially for a player who has a bit of a pouty face to begin with. Third, my "excessive hype by English media" alarms went off because Henry could always score in the EPL, but he never achieved the same feats in Europe, he was a washout in Serie A (albeit in part because Juve didn't use him correctly), and France could never score without Zidane pulling the strings, which is inconsistent with the notion that Henry is a great striker. I should be able to get past the first two reasons now that Henry is a Barca player and the third went by the wayside a little with Henry's excellent first leg performances against Real Madrid, Juve, and Villareal in 2006 and a strong move to draw a penalty against Portugal in the World Cup semifinal. I'm not going to like him the way I like a product of the Barca youth ranks like Messi, Iniesta, or Puyol or a player who plays with personality like Ronaldinho, but I should appreciate Henry just fine.

I think that Barca's excitement at signing Henry can be put down to a few factors. First, they learned the hard way last year that depth at the striker position is critical. Gudjohnsen and Saviola were a major step down and the entire team suffered as a result. For that reason, I do not think that this move is a prelude to Samuel Eto'o being off-loaded. Second, Barca probably have a major warchest built up because they haven't made major waves in the transfer market in the past several years. Barca's revenues were way up as a result of their success on the pitch, as membership increased and their TV revenue swelled from a deep run in the Champions League. Thus, Barca have the money to spend on Henry, as well as Yaya Toure (who answers a major need in defensive midfield), Christian Chivu (likely slotted into central defense), and Eric Abidal (meets an obvious need at leftback). Third, there aren't too many opportunities to sign top drawer players who fit the Barca system perfectly, so the Blaugrana had to jump at this.

On paper, Barca ought to be close-to-unbeatable next year, but I said the same things last summer when they acquired Thuram and Zambrotta to shore up the backline and the team won bugger all this year. They still need to be luckier with injuries, Rijkaard needs better tactical advice (and he needs to resist the urge to play all four attackers at once [except when trailing]), and the players need to be motivated. A season in which the club failed to meet expectations ought to be a sufficient spur to better play, but you never know how the egos are going to work.

There has been some criticism of the move on the grounds that Barca are now repeating the "Zidanes y Pavons" mistakes of the Real Madrid Galactico era, but there are two reasons why this is wrong. First, Madrid were very successful after they signed Figo and Zidane. They only went wrong when they signed players who were Galacticos in name only, namely Beckham and Michael Owen. I doubt that anyone puts Henry on the level of Becks and Owen. Second, Madrid's strategy was to pair their star players with mediocrities from their youth system. Thus, when their stars aged, they were left with underperforming squads. Barca, in contrast, have a number of good, young players, so they won't have the imbalance that Madrid had in the later years of the Galactico era. When Henry starts to decline, Barca will still have other high-quality players to put around him.

My wife also posed the "doesn't this make Barca like the Yankees? You hate the Yankees." question to me on Saturday as I was raving about the different ways that Henry can slot in with Eto'o, Messi, and Ronnie. It was a lot like the scene in Office Space where Jennifer Anniston asks Ron Livingston "isn't that stealing?" It was a very obvious and hard to deflect assessment. Fortunately, sophistry is my speciality, so I got out of the box in a couple ways. First, Barca don't spend any more than a number of clubs in Europe, namely Real Madrid, the two Milan sides, Juve (once they get back on their feet), the top four in the EPL (once Arsenal start spending again), and Bayern Munich. The Yankees, on the other hand, spend more than anyone else in baseball by a significant margin. Second, Henry came to Barca, at least in part, because of what the club represent. He could have gotten a major bump in pay in any one of a number of locales. I may be cynical in saying this, but there is no reason for baseball free agents to play for the Yankees other than the fact that they pay more than anyone else. Third, what annoys me most about the Yankees is that they are parasites. They sign up talented players that other teams develop, but they never contribute any good young players on their own. (This is less true now that Brian Cashman has asserted himself and has changed the Yankees' approach to talent acquisition. Cashman has been able to do so because, from all accounts, Steinbrenner isn't as involved anymore, just as the Yankees were able to build the foundation of their championship teams in the early 90s because Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball and thus, they retained their prospects.) Barca may contribute great young players who punch balls into the net, but they can never be described as parasites.


LD said...

I think you are a little cynical about the Yankees...

For one thing, I think there are some players who do believe there are reasons other than money for going to the Yankees. Namely, the fact that no professional franchise in any sport in North America has won as many titles. The history of the team does mean something to a lot of players. I think the money means a whole lot, but I also think some players appreciate playing the same positions as Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle, etc. Another reason, that I think is tangentially related to money but still a separate reason, is that players know when they sign with the Yankees that they will have a better opportunity to compete for a title than most places. Finally, and as much as I loathe the Yankees and I am certain that the Yankees are the most hated team in MLB, they're also have one of the biggest fanbases in the league. I don't understand it, but there are a whole lot of people who grew up Yankee fans. And that's one reason why some guys would want to play there. Of course, money is a major factor, but I think there are other reasonable factors that may come into the equation.

Also, I think you give Cashman too much credit/let things slide too much on changing the strategy of player development for the Yankees. He was involved in plenty of the free agent signings and trades over the last several years and deserves some of the blame for the approach.

But all together, I agree with your approach on Henry.

Kanu said...

"he never achieved the same feats in Europe..."

Dude, come on. 42 goals in 85 matches are his Champions League stats. His 42 goals place him 4th on the all time CL goalscoring chart and 6th if you include European Cup which gets DiStefano & Eusebio on the list. That is an absolutely fantastic strike rate {1 goal in every 2 matches over an 8 year span} for the premier club competition in the world, and to imply that he never did much in the CL until the 2006 run to the final is, well, flat out wrong {hat trick away to Roma when Roma was good and making world class Zanetti look like a Sunday rec. league player during the 5-1 demolition of Inter at the San Siro immediately come to mind for starters}.

Your France argument is weak, too. 1) For the French National Team he has 39 goals in 92 matches, which is still an great strike rate, and with 3 more goals he will pass Platini as France's all time goal scorer. 2) He has never been used in the same way by France that Wenger did so effectively at Arsenal. With France he has been deployed more of a target man/finisher {think RVN} with the play going through ZZ, which does not suit him at all, yet still the 39 goals in 92 matches. At Arsenal the offense went through him, and not as a target man or finisher but more of a get him the ball and let him create either for himself or for others {he led the EPL on goals AND assists in 02-03, while also setting the all time assist record for English football}. 3) Who the hell wouldn't do much better in a team with ZZ when ZZ was 'pulling strings'/creating for him? Zizou was the best player of his generation and made everyone around him better, whether it was TH12 or anyone else, so your line of reasoning is pretty unfair. And I'm still surprised that you write off his great goal to knock out Brasil, which was 1000x more difficult to pull of than it looked. Remember too that he scored the goal {all by himself} that got France to WC06 when they won 1-0 away to Ireland.

I am more interested if there is enough ball to go around {although I still think SE9 or R10 will be sold this summer} and keep all of them happy, esp TH14, who has a penchant for being moody, is used to being THE MAN and is now 1 of 4 {for the moment anyways}, and is going from huge fish in a medium pond to smaller fish in a bigger pond.

Either way, good luck, I hope that he does well.

Michael said...

LD, I guess there are reasons to play for the Yankees, but they can't possibly be enough to justify the treatment that Yankees players get from the media and their fans. Then again, I come to the table with certain biases against the Yankees.

As for Cashman, I think he was under a "win now!" edict by Steinbrenner for years that led to the Yankees' strategy of buying the biggest name free agent every year and/or trading away everything of value in the farm system. From all I've read, Cashman won out last year and is getting to implement a different vision now.

Kanu, it's telling that you cite two lower pressure group games for Henry's greatness, as if trying to show my point that Henry didn't come up big in big games for them and that his strike rate is bolstered by group games. I must not be remembering all of his big goals in knock-out games. And your France arguments are weak. First, the team scores fine with Zidane and no Henry, but they can't score with Henry and no Zidane. Look at their inability to score in qualifying leading up to 2006, or their goalless performance in '02. Shouldn't a team with the best striker in the world do a little bit better than that? If Henry was so good, then why didn't France run their offense through him when Zidane retired? Second, the goal against Brazil this summer could not have been an easier strike. Henry was:

1. Unmarked;

2. About four meters from goal; and

3. The ball was played to his foot.

If a striker can't score in that instance, then a striker can't score.

LD said...

More I think of it, the less I think they'll sell Eto'o. I think it's odd, but I get the sense that Eto'o's is a little lower than it would/should be - and in that it's in Barca's interest to keep him around. Other teams would depress their transfer offers because of time off for the African Cup of Nations (several big spenders have announced that they aren't signing anyone involved in it). It never hurts to have depth at that position either. I'd guess Gudjohnsen is headed out, and probably Ezquerro too. But what's left is easily the best scoring group in the world.

As for the Yankees, I'm not saying I agree with any of those reasons, and I'm very certain that it's easy for a particular signee to give such reasons when their check has 8 zeroes on it. But some strange, deranged, front-running douchebag Yankee fans turn into good ball players. Go figure. And I'm still not letting Cashman off the hook for things in the early 00s.

moin said...

I hate the Yankees as much as the next person, but to say that they dont produce players is silly. Jeter, Posada, Rivera, Williams, and Petite are all products of the Yankee system (and, ironically, the biggest contributors in their championship run). So in this way, Xavi, Messi, Puyol, Iniesta, and Valdes kind have their equivalent there.

There's plenty of reasons for Henry to succeed, especially now that Yaya Toure has come along for the ride. The biggest potential problem is the one you pointed out: Rijkaard has to drop someone every match. Who? It's going to be very delicate to balance the egos. Did I mention Palacio is scheduled to move to Barca too? And not just in attack, but in the midfield, somebody has to sit (or leave). I don't think Barca will be nearly as unlucky in terms of injuries as last year. So I don't think depth will matter nearly as much (besides, at the end of the season, it wasn't the lack of depth in attack that lost Barca La Liga).

Onto RM's Galacticos policy. You are correct in saying that it was successful to start with, but you are wrong in saying that the problem was when they started signing Galacticos in name only. The problem started when they let non-Galactico players go: Morientes, Makelele, Solari, and Cambiasso to name a few. Pavon, Raul Bravo, and Portillo were fairly promising youth players who never panned out, but part of it is that the RM youth system went through a rather bad dry spell. And I'd be a little bit worried if I were Barca for this reason: their best youth players are all attackers, Dos Santos and Krkic (I'd like to buy a vowel?) comes to mind. I guess the best idea is to loan them out, like RM did for Eto'o. But, like what happened there, it might not work out well in the end for the club.

Oh, and nobody goes to Barca for the liberal ethos. Not Stoichkov, not Romario, not Maradona, not Ronaldinho, not nobody. They went for the money and the chance to win big trophies (the same reasons they sign for any big team).

Kanu said...

Agree to disagree on all counts, dude.

I'll just leave the numbers to speak for themselves.