Thierry Henry raced onto a sublime ball played over the top and closed in on goal in the New York Red Bulls' match against FC Dallas on Sunday.
Then he did something that initially angered Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke.
Instead of opting to shoot on a good look from the right side of the penalty area, Henry decided to cut a pass back to a streaking Bradley Wright-Phillips. The Englishman netted a one-timed finish that lifted the Red Bulls to a 1-0 victory – and also provided an example of how Henry’s game has evolved in the twilight years of his legendary career.
Henry has always had a nose for goal, a vision that few players in the world can match and a soccer IQ that most could only dream of. But in recent times – especially this year – the veteran Frenchman has become more of a setup man, a player who is as likely to deliver quality chances for his teammates as he is to score himself.
Petke has noticed that subtle – but impactful – change in Henry, and the second-year head coach thinks it ultimately makes the club more dangerous.
“I’ve definitely seen not only [Henry passing instead of shooting], but penalty kicks or free kicks, Thierry playing more of an assist role, whether that be in a play or handing off a certain set play to somebody else that he thinks is hot right now or has a better feeling about it," said Petke on a Tuesday conference call when asked if Henry is a more selfless player these days.
“To go back to that play that he didn’t shoot, my initial thought when he passed the ball – it was a great pass but it wasn’t a clean pass, it kind of bounced – I jumped out, and I was initially angry that he didn’t shoot. Then, when Bradley gets on the end of it and it goes in, you see that [Henry] saw that and he saw that he put him in a better situation. Looking back on the tape, he committed the goalkeeper and was able to get that pass off and have him move away.”
Henry's numbers over the last three seasons back up Petke’s statement. The Red Bulls captain has as many assists as he has goals (three) this year, and the past two seasons have seen him compile 25 goals and 21 assists. His first season-and-a-half in MLS, by contrast, produced 16 goals and 7 assists.
Petke may be keen on allowing Henry to drop deeper and bring teammates into the game, but something he does want to change is the number of minutes Henry plays. Petke said in the offseason that he wanted to manage Henry’s playing time better this year, but so far Henry has missed just one minute in the eight games he has played this year, sitting out two games played on artificial turf.
“[It's] because of the situation we have been in,” said Petke. “Yes, we find ourselves tied for first place right now, but two games ago, three games ago, we were battling with a lot of other teams, who are struggling to get points, to get to that top, and there’s been situations where I don’t feel comfortable yet.
"I need to, at some point coming up … not only rest players, but start getting them off a little earlier. That’s going to be big for us, because before we know it, it’s going to be [US] Open Cup time, it’s going to be [CONCACAF] Champions League time.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.