Backe's happy dilemma: How to best use Henry
New York Red Bulls boss Hans Backe now has what they call a good problem. The coach's happy dilemma is to figure out how to best utilize fresh catch Thierry Henry.
The Swede immediately ended some of the wonder by proclaiming that his Barcelona megastar transplant will play as a proper forward in a two-man set with Juan Pablo Angel.
"He will play as the highest striker," Backe told MLSsoccer.com. "And we know he’s very, very mobile. That means he would probably be on both the left- and right-hand sides."
The idea of running him off hold-up artist Angel is appetizing, but there are a few things to understand about Backe's comment.
First and foremost, Henry likes to shade left. He came up with Monaco as a left winger, played there some when France won World Cup in 1998 and has filled volumes of YouTube highlight reels with trademark dashes inside to open up the righty curler or lash.
Backe can say he'll turn up left, right and central all he wants, but we know which way the wind blows for the glider Henry.
At Arsenal, this would give him plenty of chances to link up with raiding fullback Ashley Cole and/or skillful playmaker Robert Pirès. The Red Bulls do not have these elements for the left side; they can offer more possession support than actual attack interplay.
Left defender Danleigh Borman is a righty playing the opposite flank, which obviously inhibits many of the typical wide-attack skill maneuvers one would expect from a wingback. The South African does, however, routinely position himself well upfield and uses speed to push forward on breaks. Perhaps the biggest benefit he'll provide Henry is by forcing turnovers at or across midfield.
Sinisa Ubiparipovic currently holds down the left side of midfield and also offers some possession support and physical pressure on opposing ball carriers. Henry will also certainly like his well-weighted lead passes into the final third.
A worry would be that Borman won't be active enough in the final attack phase and Ubiparipovic doesn't play as a touchline wide man, which could compel Henry even wider than he prefers. Like Arjen Robben, he likes the diagonal line toward the corner of the area more than the classic winger path out on the edge.
As we saw during World Cup with Spain's David Villa and Fernando Torres – who prowl generally similar lanes to Henry and Angel – this can force a disconnect of distance, shutting down striker interplay.
The good news for now is that central midfielder Joel Lindpere loves to run that inside left channel, effectively bridging any potential gap with an extra onrusher.
There's more good news down the line because, when prototypical left winger Brian Nielsen regains fitness, Backe will have that true wide player option to inhibit Henry drift. The Dane can provide a new service angle for Henry slip passes and Angel's aerial game. Most Red Bulls fans need no reminder of how this puzzle piece enhances a team after watching Dave van den Bergh help the team to the MLS Cup final two season ago.
Of course, things don't always go as diagrammed on the chalkboard and other selection issues arise, so it's always best to have backup ideas.
When Nielsen comes back, a 3-5-2 starts to look pretty good simply by eliminating that left-back trouble spot. Ubiparipovic can drop deeper, or Backe can draft either Miller or rookie Tony Tchani into that left holding midfielder role.
This formation would likely give Henry the greatest number of link-up partners. Of course, it would also bring more potential help defenders near, but the Frenchman's ability to set up open teammates turns that fact from downside to area for exploitation.
Henry could also bookend Dane Richards in a Barcelona-esque 4-3-3, but this plan probably requires Roy Miller to regain his Rosenborg mojo for best results.
The winger and the fullback should regularly move up the wing in tandem without making the kind of turnovers that spell doom. On top of that, I doubt anybody is expecting Henry to bust his tail on defense. Clearly, an reliable two-way left back would be preferable in this set.
It's a lot to think about, I know. But, don't worry about Backe. I'm sure he'll manage to work something out.