On the surface, it may seem a silly question. After all, Thierry Henry is not an easy man to replace. How many clubs find a new record goalscorer straight after parting with one? How many clubs sell their star player to Barcelona and instantly fill the void with a signing of equal or superior quality?
After Liverpool lost Luis Suarez to the Nou Camp giants in summer 2014, they finished four places and 22 points worse off than the campaign previous. Less than 18 months later, they even instigated a change in management – a chain reaction that started with the Urugayan’s £65million move to La Liga.
But in the case of Arsenal, we’re not talking 18 months or a few seasons down the line. It’s been nine years since Henry made the same journey as Suarez and for one of the most successful clubs throughout the Premier League era, who have annually qualified for the Champions League under Arsene Wenger’s watch, not adequately replacing the iconic forward is a failing that deserves scrutinous attention.
Excluding youngsters who barely saw the light of day, winger-forwards who only took the central role in dire straits such as Alexis Sanchez and Lucas Podolski, utter flops and the simply ridiculous career of Nicklas Bendtner, we make it seven front-men who’ve been charged with the task of undertaking Henry’s goalscoring mantle – albeit, with hugely varying levels of expectation – since his departure in 2007.
As you can see, some have performed notably better than others, starting with the unfortunate case of Eduardo. He arrived as Henry’s direct replacement, almost crossing each others’ paths exiting and entering the Emirates, but a cruel twist of fate in the form of a harrowing leg break ended the Croatian’s Arsenal career before it had truly begun. The striker scored just 21 goals in three seasons for Arsenal, before fading into relative obscurity with Shakhtar Donetsk.
At the opposite end of the spectrum of Henry successors, we have the short-lived but potent Emmanuel Adebayor and former captain Robin van Persie who, unlike the Frenchman, both did Arsenal the grave disservice of jumping ship to direct Premier League rivals.
The Togo international enjoyed the most fruitful campaign of his career with the north Londoners, finishing Arsenal’s first season in the absence of Henry, 2007/08, with 30 goals across all competitions. It may not have been fully-fledged Henry territory but it wasn’t far off and only Cristiano Ronaldo finished up with more Premier League goals that season. But the financial allure of Manchester City prevailed and the African attacker left just one year later. If he’d stayed at the Emirates, things could have panned out differently. But what we know from Adebayor’s turbulent spells with City and Tottenham Hotspur suggests he would’ve never quite filled Henry’s shoes.
Van Persie, meanwhile, is unquestionably the closest Arsenal have possessed to a genuine replacement for their all-time leading goalscorer. Like Henry, the Dutchman was converted from a winger into a striker by Arsene Wenger, a transition that truly came to the fore as he finished as Arsenal’s top scorer in two consecutive seasons – the biggest dominance any Arsenal striker has asserted over the club’s goal charts since Henry’s run of seven straight campaigns. But almost combining the tales of Adebayor and Eduardo, van Persie’s Gunners career stuttered through injury problems before ending with a controversial move to Manchester United. Once again, the potential to truly fill Henry’s void was never quite filled.
Currently, of course, Arsenal’s attack is headed by Olivier Giroud, a striker who constantly divides opinion. Underrated to some, loathed by others, the Frenchman’s goal tally is what raises the biggest question marks. 0.44 goals per match is nothing to be sniffed at, but it’s still shy of Chelsea’s Diego Costa, 0.48, Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, 0.58 and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, 0.66. Likewise, whilst RVP, 0.48, and Adebayor, 0.44, arrived as developing youngsters and even played in less advanced positions on occasion, Giroud was purchased as an established striker and has been utilised in that role exclusively since 2012.
Regardless, the fact of the matter is that all the aforementioned, and more, never truly came close to rising above Henry’s almighty shadow. As we’ve already alluded to, that’s an incredibly tough task. But Arsenal enjoyed a formidable line of centre-forwards before Henry’s 1999 arrival – Nicolas Anelka, Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp to name a few – and at one time or another, Wenger has found successors comparable to the rest of his ‘Invincibles’ clan.
Mesut Ozil, for example, can be mentioned in a similar breath to Bergkamp. Alexis Sanchez is as talented as Robert Pires. Petr Cech offers as much experience and quality as Jens Lehman. Cesc Fabregas proved himself a worthy replacement for Patrick Vieira, albeit a completely different type of midfielder. Laurent Koscielny, on his day, can be as effective as Kolo Toure or Sol Campbell. Bacary Sagna, meanwhile, was probably a shade above Lauren.
So why does quality parallel to Henry continue to evade Arsenal in such key position – one that usually makes the difference between title-winners and also-rans? Manchester United went from world-class striker to world-class striker under Sir Alex Ferguson, divine centre-forwards are synonymous with Liverpool and Chelsea have even replaced their own Henry counterpart, Didier Drogba, in the form of Diego Costa.
As with any critique of Arsenal, it eventually comes down to the bottom line. And the bottom line is always Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to spend.
When the Frenchman bought Henry in 1999, he splashed out £11million – at the time, a staggering sum for a 21-year-old. That’s £17.5million in today’s value and considering how the transfer market escalates at a vastly greater level of inflation than the general economy, would probably be comparable to Manchester United’s £36million swoop for Anthony Martial – coincidentally, dubbed ‘the next Henry’ – last summer.
So it’s rather incredible to think that in the 17 years since, only once has Wenger paid more to sign a striker – £16million man Danny Welbeck, and even he’s considered more a forward than an out-and-out front-man. In the meantime, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and untold other Premier League clubs have all set new club-record transfer fees on strikers.
And worryingly for Arsenal, the threat of being left behind is only getting greater. World-class strikers are becoming an increasingly rarer commodity whilst the price-tags of those just outside that elite bracket are exploding beyond all proportion. £79million for Gonzalo Higuain? £65million for Romelu Lukaku? £60million for Alvaro Morata? Earth-shattering price-tags for those who aren’t even the best in their trade. Imagine how much a peak Thierry Henry would cost Arsenal now… can you envisage Arsene Wenger ever parting with that kind of money?
Unless the Gunners gaffer strikes pure gold with a purchase of the Takuma Asano variety, Henry’s rightful heir may not materialse at Arsenal until Le Prof steps down. That’s a whole can of worms we’ll leave for another day.