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Best Premier League performances: No 2, Thierry Henry for Arsenal v Liverpool

To celebrate 30 years of the Premier LeagueThe Athletic is paying tribute to the 50 greatest individual performances in its history, as voted for by our writers. You can read Oliver Kay’s introduction to our Golden Games series (and the selection rules) here – as well as the full list of all the articles as they unfold.

Picking 50 from 309,949 options is an impossible task. You might not agree with their choices, you won’t agree with the order. They didn’t. It’s not intended as a definitive list. It’s a bit of fun, but hopefully a bit of fun you’ll enjoy.

Remember the Highbury Screamer? She became known for panicked shrieks just as an opponent was about to shoot against Arsenal at Highbury. It must have been the ideal pitch for television microphones to pick up as her alarm call became a feature of broadcasts at the old stadium. 

The sense of impending peril felt particularly ominous when the Highbury Screamer went full Edvard Munch on 9 April 2004. As Michael Owen pulled back his foot to guide Liverpool in front just before half-time, Arsenal’s entire universe was imploding. 

It had been a hellish week. Seven days earlier, Arsenal had been in pursuit of a treble. But a series of stumbles left them in serious trouble. They lost the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United, were painfully ejected from the Champions League by Chelsea, and trailed in the Premier League to Liverpool.

Their unbeaten run and confidence frayed to breaking point. The dressing room at half-time was thick with suffocating fear. “I felt that the stadium stopped breathing,” recalls Thierry Henry. “We were having such a great season, people were talking about the treble, and in a week we lost everything.” 

Arsene Wenger was a student of the different types of motivation. “Intrinsic motivation comes from people who set themselves targets,” he once said. “They have an internal need to push themselves. They carry some sort of suffering inside, a dissatisfaction, that they transform into motivation. That motivation comes from the desire to always improve, to set themselves targets, and to analyse what they do.

“Then you have people with extrinsic motivation. They are motivated by goals coming from outside — people say to them, ‘You have to do this much in the game’, or, ‘If you do that, you will get the big bonus’. And they would do it.”

Looking around the dressing room at half-time, Wenger was acutely aware of the need for an injection of powerful motivation. Patrick Vieira described it as emotionally one of the hardest scenarios he had come across. Martin Keown, a substitute on the day, felt worried by the inertia that gripped and was desperate for his team-mates to pull themselves together, and he told them so. 

They did, by summoning the style and spirit that generally served them so well, even though it required every ounce of resolve in the circumstances. 

Back on the pitch, Henry drifted in from the left to jab a pass across. Freddie Ljungberg helped it on and Robert Pires arrived with typically intuitive timing to equalise. The relief was palpable, but anxiety still knocked around as nobody felt the result was yet safe. 

Henry went into overdrive to banish all of Arsenal’s nervousness and revive the team completely. He had 10 opponents between him and the goal when he picked up the ball level with the centre circle. He revved himself up, bobbed and weaved at breakneck speed between them, and for the climax of his virtuoso run bent his strike past Jerzy Dudek. It was a goal of staggering audacity, tenacity and ability. Henry span off with his own alternative version of the Highbury Scream — this one was joyous, pumping with adrenaline, and presumably a couple of octaves lower. The Highbury crowd lost itself in pandemonium. 

It was an extraordinary strike at an extraordinary moment for his team. Henry himself described it in the book Invincible as “more than a goal” — it was a trigger that enabled everyone to feel their hopes coming back to life. “It is the only time that I felt a stadium breathing again. I never had that feeling ever again. I have never seen a team feel such vibrations. We responded with our heart.”

Henry’s hat-trick goal, set up by Dennis Bergkamp, was scruffier, but important nonetheless as it took the game beyond Liverpool’s reach in both scoreline and psychology. Gerard Houllier described Henry as unplayable that second half. It was an individual performance that tilted everything for his team. 

Not all players are comfortable with the extra pressure that comes with being a main protagonist. Even in a team as expert across the board as Arsenal’s that season, the rest of the players did have a tendency to trust that their main front men would deliver when needed. Henry and Bergkamp embodied that special quality to be a difference maker. 

Vieira elaborated: “We were expecting someone to do something magical and it happened. We wanted for him to do it. He was there for us. When you are struggling you expect him, or Dennis, to do something.”

Let’s go back for a moment to Wenger’s point about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Walking out the tunnel and into the second half against Liverpool, Henry felt pushed by both. The external factor was the aim to win the title and go unbeaten, with all the accolades that come with such an accomplishment. But the intrinsic motivation gives a fascinating insight into Henry the person, and how driven he was. 

He pulled his inspiration from deep within, coaxed by a grudge of sorts, feeling wronged in a game against Liverpool that happened three years previously. 

The 2001 FA Cup final planted a deep-seated and very personal sense of determination when it came to fixtures against Liverpool. Arsenal’s dominance that day was wrecked by two late Owen goals, but what really rankled was a pivotal decision early on. Stephane Henchoz handled a shot off the line to deny what would have been an Henry goal to give Arsenal a two-goal cushion. But there was no goal, no penalty and no red card for Henchoz.

“That game was a joke,” Henry reflected. “I was devastated. I came back home — how can you lose a game like this? It was so hard to take. I said to myself, especially when I used to play against Liverpool, I felt something special. I used to think about that FA Cup final and make sure that they were going to suffer, not us, again.” 

So there you have it. Not only was Henry a rare footballer because of his wondrous cocktail of skills, daring and physical prowess, he was also unusual in terms of his very exacting sense of motivation and a desire to win fuelled by his own emotions.

It made him the vital player he was — one who could react, shoulder the expectancy on him, make the difference. Without those characteristics at that nadir against Liverpool, perhaps Arsenal’s Invincibles would never have been. 

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