Former French striker Thierry Henry, who has played for top clubs like Arsenal and Barcelona during his glittering career, was in India this week. Currently a second assistant coach with the Belgian national football team, Henry visited Kolkata and Mumbai to catch ISL action live, interact with fans as well as share tips with young footballers who turned up at an event organized by Puma. We caught up with Henry during a round table discussion at a Mumbai hotel.

Tell us about your experience in India.

I did a lot in a day in Kolkata. I went to a Puma store and interacted with fans and the Indian footballer Robin Singh. I also went to the stadium and watched an ISL game. It was a different type of atmosphere and I enjoyed watching an old colleague Diego Forlan score the winner for Mumbai. Learning about the league was nice. I’ve also had a chance to meet Mrs Nita Ambani, who is an amazing woman. It’s great to see what she’s doing not just for football, but for sports in the country.

What are your thoughts on the ISL? How important is development at the grassroots level for Indian football?

It’s the most important thing. ISL is doing a great thing by bringing in international players and coaches who are so experienced for the youngsters to learn from them. The future of this country and its league is in the youth, and maintaining it and ensuring that talented youngsters keep growing is in your hands.

How do you rate yourself as a footballer?

I never do that. I always tried to do what I could and be the best player I could be. When you play in a team, what you want is to make sure you can help your team and never let them down.

Did you always foresee a future in coaching?

It’s something I’m enjoying very much now. I spend time with a lot of former players who are coaches now and take some tips. I ask my own former coaches a lot of questions and try to keep in mind what they used to do in various situations.

Henry with Ranveer Singh
Henry with Ranveer Singh
Henry with footballer Robin Singh
Henry with footballer Robin Singh

What separates a good striker from a great one?

A lot! It’s not so much about what you can or can’t do. After a certain level, a lot of the best strikers can finish a certain way. The difference is in execution. What’s difficult in the game is that it’s never the same picture that you see. I have to analyse the ball that is travelling to me very quickly, and picture what I am going to do with it. So when the ball comes, you know what you will do with it. I used to look at the ball and then try to see who is moving where and how so I can plan my goal. Most of the times, you see many strikers losing their way in what they are trying to do because they are thinking about it while doing it. It’s not easy, but once you learn how to do that, you’ll be a significantly better player. Strikers like Inzaghi used to be poachers inside the box.

But today, do you think football has moved away from poachers?

Not only that, I think the role of the number 9 has changed. If you go back to the 80s and early 90s where the striker wasn’t really getting the ball in the build-up, not in a bad way, but the ball went to the wingers, and every team had a distinct number 10 and a number 9, so you play through your number 10 or your wingers and then your number 9 appears – that’s a good shape. But now the build-up is most of the time trying to reach the striker first and then playing off him. Now the number 10 also scores instead of only assisting. But it’s good for the game to change because it keeps us on our toes. Back in the day, the striker was always the last man making runs and never coming short, but some of them do it now, like Luis Suarez. Robert Lewandowski too gets a bit of the ball running behind. Ultimately, it’s what the bosses are doing and changing tactics.

What do you feel about Arsene Wenger completing 20 years at Arsenal? Are they title contenders this season?

Why not? There are five teams separated by one point right now, so they’re all in it. It’s very difficult to call. Manchester City started strong but are struggling a bit now; Arsenal didn’t look good in the first two games but look okay now; Chelsea are starting to understanding what Conte wants; Liverpool has been consistent, especially winning away from home at Arsenal and Chelsea and getting a draw at Tottenham. Obviously as an Arsenal fan I would like them to win the title, but more than ever, I think this year will be a proper battle. As for the boss, what he’s done for this club is outstanding in changing the way the club plays – keeping the ball on the ground, riveting passes and quality play. Moving to the new stadium, developing the training ground and facilities – when you think of Arsenal, you think of Arsene Wenger and his contribution. It would be great for the club, the fans and for him to win the title again in the season where he has completed two decades in charge.

We saw Walcott’s resurgence this season. You’ve spent time with him as a player. What do you think has worked in his favour this season?

I was around with him for a year before I left. He’s been at Arsenal for a decade now, and I feel it’s time for him to deliver a complete season. He was stopped by injuries a couple of times, but it’s time for him now to have a good 36-38- odd games season where he can be efficient for the club. Right now, the way they are playing creates more movement. Having Sanchez in the middle has created a lot of space for everyone else and has resulted in more goals. It’s a matter of creativity, and that has worked well so far.

You’ve played in several El Clasicos. Can you take us through former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola’s preparation for these matches?

It’s a special game. It’s one of those games where you don’t need any special kind of preparation because everyone’s up for that game. You know exactly what you have to do. There were the usual tactical discussions, but that extra bit you’re talking about would get taken care of itself simply given the magnitude of the game.

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