By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Dec 2, 2019) US Soccer Players – Thierry Henry is back in MLS. This time, it’s with a suit and tie. Named the new head coach of the Montreal Impact just last month, his hiring is about injecting some newfound energy and optimism to a team that has lacked both for much of the past decade.
For Henry, the Montreal job is a second chance at coaching under relatively little pressure. Henry had a bad time during his managerial debut last season at AS Monaco, one of his former clubs. As a player, he won the World Cup and European Championship for France and numerous titles at various clubs. At Monaco last season, Henry was dogged by a team that both underperformed and depleted by injuries. While at AS Monaco, he experimented with all types of formations, anything to try to change the course of a difficult season. That’s not what Henry was used to during his career.
Henry the player was a talented scorer and leader on and off the field. As a coach, he remains an unknown quantity. By signing him, the Impact is taking a big gamble. It may pay off for the Impact, which has not had a winning MLS season since 2015. That’s a long period of futility in a league where teams can go from worst to first, and vice versa, in a single season.
Since joining the league in 2012, Montreal’s success has come in the Canadian Championship with three titles. In MLS, they got as far as the Eastern Conference Final in 2016. Two years earlier, the team had gone on a Cinderella run and reached the Concacaf Champions League final, only to lose at the last hurdle. These have been the few bright spots for a franchise that owner Joey Saputo has always had high hopes for.
Saputo is no stranger to soccer. He is a majority shareholder of Bologna after his family made their fortune in the Italian food business. Saputo’s gamble on Henry this coming season could backfire. After all, Saputo is an involved investor/operator. His patience appears to be wearing thin. Henry has already acknowledged that the Impact represents a reboot to his young coaching career.
“For me, the way I put it is always you win or you learn and I learned a lot there (at Monaco),” Henry told reporters on November 18 during a news conference in Montreal. “It’s about coming back, always. You have to get up and be in front of what happens. The only mistake that you can make is not learning from what happened.”
Henry’s issues at Monaco were due in large part to not having the players. His tactical choices didn’t help, but there’s only so much any coach can do with a comparatively weaker squad. At just age 42, Henry is a relatively young coach and needs to make a sharp distinction between who he was as a player and who he is as a coach. He also must come up with a team identity early on and settle on a consistent formation.
Injuries at Monaco forced Henry to rotate players and juggle tactics constantly. Henry could settle on a 4-2-3-1, a common MLS formation, or a 4-3-3, which is the most flexible of any arrangement. Henry has used both of these formations in the past. He should avoid clogging his defense with central defenders and try to turn Montreal into an offensive-minded club. The Impact scored 47 goals last season while finishing in 9th-place. Only one team in the Eastern Conference made the playoffs scoring less than 50 goals. Henry knows what it takes to succeed as a player in MLS, a positive for any non-North American coach. He should also know what types of player that requires.
Either the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 would allow Henry to use the wings to move the ball forward, a likely move given that he has players such as Ignacio Piatti and Rommel Quioto, both left-sided wingers, on the roster. If Henry has creative players on his side, he may want to focus on a possession game. MLS is different than Europe. A much more physical league, Henry may want to bulk up his defense and midfield instead to lend support to the type of build-up play he once played under as a member of the Red Bulls under Jesse Marsch.
We don’t know what the Impact has planned in the transfer market this winter. Another Designated Player would certainly help as other teams across the Eastern Conference also bulk up. Impact Sporting Director Olivier Renard has said recently that adding “a player like (Henry) would also be welcome, but we’ll see about that later.”
There’s really no telling what the Impact can do in 2020. If Henry can settle on a formation and money is spent to bring in reinforcements, Montreal could be a competitive team. It’s something the ownership group has wanted for a long time. The excitement this team once generated could return if they start winning. Henry’s presence alone has shown that the city cares about the team. If Henry the coach can lead from the sidelines, that will only build over the course of the 2020 MLS season.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- The USMNT in 2019
- Nashville and Inter Miami in the expansion draft
- 5 things from MLS in 2019
- The revamped playoffs gave us an underdog MLS Cup
Photo by Jose L Argueta – ISIPhotos.com