Thierry Henry At His Best: How Arsenal v Leeds Was Dominated By The French Genius

In 2004, an inspired performance by the Frenchman sent Leeds hurtling towards relegation
06:55, 08 May 2022

Mention Arsenal v Leeds United to any fan of the two clubs and the name of Thierry Henry is bound to come into the conversation.

He might not have a major bearing on either the Gunners’ pursuit of the Champions League or Jesse Marsch’s survival task when the pair meet at the Emirates on Sunday – it would be a lot to ask of a 44-year-old, after all – but his previous escapades in this fixture will litter the pre-match highlight reels. 

The last time Leeds were battling to stay in the Premier League in 2004 it was an inspired performance by the Frenchman which sent them hurtling towards the edge. On a Friday night at Highbury, Henry delivered one of the great virtuoso performances at a time when he was arguably the greatest player in world football. 

Robert Pires had opened the scoring at the Clock End after racing onto a perfectly weighted (obviously!) Dennis Bergkamp pass, but thereafter it was all about Henry.

First he broke the offside trap then toyed with goalkeeper Paul Robinson, teasing him out before slipping the ball home. Then he put the result beyond doubt before half-time, demonstrating his supreme confidence by racing up to the penalty spot after a Michael Duberry handball and nonchalantly lifting a Panenka effort down the centre of the goal.

Just a week earlier Henry had scored three times as Arsenal came from 2-1 down at home to Liverpool to record a 4-2 win which extended their unbeaten start to the campaign to 31 matches, and his irresistible form wasn’t about to be halted by the 15-minute interval.

After the break, his instinctive movement made a mockery of the Leeds back line once more. As Gilberto Silva carried the ball away from his own half on the break, Henry ran right at Steven Caldwell. With the Scottish centre-half left twisted all out of position, Henry nipped to his left and raced onto Gilberto’s perfectly timed pass before sliding home his third.

The piece de resistance was still to come. Picking up the ball 45 yards from goal, the striker turned on the afterburners to leave Duberry standing before bursting between Gary Kelly and Caldwell and firing past Robinson despite losing his footing thanks to a clip from Kelly. 

The 5-0 win was one of the great Highbury occasions of the ‘Invincibles’ era, while Leeds were condemned to relegation within weeks. If Henry’s name struck fear into most of the teams he faced, it created nightmares for the Leeds back line.

Following his departure for Barcelona in 2007 there was at least the assumption he could do no further damage to clubs like Leeds, yet five years on he was dealing them another unforgettable blow in the FA Cup at the Emirates.

Having returned to Arsenal on a two-month loan from New York Red Bulls, the 34-year-old came on for his grand return in the final quarter of the third-round fixture in place of Marouane Chamakh and immediately gave the travelling Leeds supporters flashbacks. Within 10 minutes he was chasing onto an Alex Song ball and delivering a trademark finish across keeper Andy Lonergan.

Wearing number 12, he scored the winner with 12 minutes remaining. It also happened to be his 12th goal against Leeds United in 12 appearances against the Yorkshire club. It was beyond poetic. Arsenal fans had already been voting for him in the Man of the Match poll long before he came off the bench, but boy did he go on to earn it.

“It’s kind of weird. I came back from holiday in Mexico 15 days ago and I never thought I was going to play for Arsenal again, or score a winner,” he told ESPN after the match. “The feeling when I scored was amazing. I will always remember tonight.” 

The Arsenal captain that day, in the absence of permanent skipper Robin van Persie, was a certain Mikel Arteta. Oh, how the Gunners boss would love to call upon somebody of Henry’s genius to help his side beat Tottenham to the fourth Champions League spot over the final four games of the season. 

While Arsenal no longer have such a luxury, nobody who ever watched Henry play in the famous red and white of their club will ever forget just how brilliant he was. Neither will Leeds United supporters, but for very different reasons.

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