Thierry Henry's first foray into club management lined up perfectly for the Hollywood narrative, but didn't quite follow script.
He took over at the club that gave him his professional debut, returning to AS Monaco as a manager where, as a player, he kicked off one of his generation's greatest careers. Before becoming a global star at Arsenal, then Barcelona, Henry got started in the South of France. There are some iconic late-1990s images of him with an easy youthful smile and untamed hair, in a perfectly '90s baggy kit.
Henry was getting his first chance all over again at Monaco, this time in management, after serving as an assistant with the Belgian national team for a few years.
It didn't come quite as easily as his playing days did, nor were there any iconic images of him in late-'90s gear, nor many jovial pictures after the introductory press conference. As has been well told by now, Henry was shown the exit door after just 20 matches.
Less than a year later, Henry is getting his second chance with the Montreal Impact, appointed head coach in November. Soon, he'll be coaching in the league where he ended his playing career, which is a pretty decent start for a narrative, too. And his new bosses aren't holding his suboptimal sojourn with Monaco against him.
"I know he had a bad experience in Monaco, but for me it’s not important," Impact sporting director Olivier Renard told MLSsoccer.com last week. "Everybody can have bad experiences in this life. ... He’s the guy I want to give a second chance.”
While Impact president Kevin Gilmore told Montreal 690 TSN Radio that Henry reached out to them and he was their only interview, Renard had Henry as someone who fit exactly what the club wanted prior to that lone sitdown.
From being a coach with desires to play an attractive style of soccer to someone who spoke French and was eager to live in Montreal, Renard explained, Henry checked all the boxes.
“He was a profile I was looking for," Renard said. "I had many contacts with people around the Belgian national team, what was his mentality and contact he had with players. I also had my own idea about him, but then I talked to him about tactics, we found we didn’t need to wait to understand we wanted him. It was important to me that he could speak French for the fans and the city. It wasn’t the most important thing, but it was still important. The way he wanted to play – offensive football – I know what we want to do. The first thing when we spoke was not about money, it was about the team. That was important for me.”
Now, Renard is tasked with supplying Henry a competitive roster for the Impact to challenge in the Concacaf Champions League and MLS.
The club finished ninth in the Eastern Conference last year, four points off a playoff place despite a solid start to the season amid a road-heavy schedule. They are now on a three-season playoff drought, too.
Defense was an issue for the Impact in 2019, as they conceded 60 goals, second-worst in the conference. That's the first priority this offseason. After contract decisions and trades, the club have just four defenders rostered, none of whom were opening-day starters last year.
“I think anyone who understands football sees that we have few defenders and we need to get more," Renard said matter-of-factly. "In two seconds if you check the squad, you know we need more defensive players than offensive players.”
It's not that the club are seeking wholesale changes, anyway. The attack remains very similar to the roster that ended 2019, with Nacho Piatti, Bojan and Lassi Lappalainen all back, while Renard expects a deal for Orji Okwonkwo's return to get done. He added the option to purchase "was very high for us," but "the idea is he'll be back."
With that attacking core, the Impact are excited. Renard is also excited to give the players a chance to work with Henry.
“It’s not that I want to change all," Renard said. "In football, you have players without confidence that you need to get under the new staff and philosophy. Maybe a player who wasn’t an important player last year, can be an important player this year. Football can move fast. We have the reality that many players had contracts, it’s not that you can put players out. I want to work with everybody, I want to give chances to everybody. We try to make the team in the way we want to play. It’s not like I need to bring in 90% of new players.”
But there will be some players incoming. Renard was noncommittal when discussing the potential for another Designated Player – they finished 2019 with an open DP slot, as Piatti and Saphir Taider accounted for the other two.
Henry, of course, will be key in both the identification and recruitment of any new additions.
“As sporting director, I like to speak to the coach about the players he wants," Renard said. "We speak about the profile we want in each position, then me and my team try to find the best player. We propose those players to the coach. I like when the coach has a vision in the players, I don’t like when the coach just focuses on the training ground and a game. It’s not like this. We’re a family, we’re not alone to decide. It’s my way to work.”