The word consistently heard from the lips of Thierry Henry during pre-match media brushes is the word, FIGHT!
The coach rarely misses an opportunity to highlight the importance he places on his team’s ability to battle and combat the opposition.
He knows more than most that to earn the right to play pretty football you need to compete and match the physical and mental strengths of any opposition. Players must be strong and win their individual battles on the pitch once that whistle sounds.
That Henry emphasizes the word so frequently can only suggest he’s detected a softness in what he’s seen of a team he’s still getting to know.
And to be fair to the French World Cup winner, there are stats to back up his observations.
Although there’s been a couple of very good away results this season already, both ending 2-2 at Saprissa and FC Dallas, in each game the Impact held a two-goal lead going into the last ten minutes. While Montreal displayed grit and determination to create the platform for victory each time, they were unable to see out either game.
In last season’s 34-game regular season program, the Impact conceded goals from the 86th minute onwards on no fewer than six occasions. Only twice did they tally in the positive column themselves with goals after the 86th minute, on neither occasion decisively. The first time they were already seven goals down at Sporting Kansas and then, on the next occasion, already two goals up at New England (a repeat of that tomorrow night would do all the same), when Anthony Jackson-Hamel rattled home a third in the third minute of added time. That was the last time the Impact scored in the last 5 mins of a regular-season MLS game. Twenty-seven matches have passed since.
In fact, the last time an Impact player scored in the last 5 mins of an MLS game to secure a point, or all three, was Daniel Lovitz’s shot from the edge of the box (a minute into added time) against Chicago. That was way back in August 2018 - forty-five MLS games ago!
Montreal, I’m afraid, just doesn’t do the LATE, LATE, SHOW....
But other snippets of data emerged last season to suggest the team’s character was in need of rebuilding, that greater FIGHT as identified by the new coach, was needed.
The Impact always fared well when it reached the interval of a game in the lead, but it happened only nine times in 34 matches. Eight of those games were won, but of the other 25 when they didn’t lead going into the second-half, victories were recorded on just four occasions. And in no fewer than 12 of those, parity existed at half-time.
Conceding early goals was also a recurring and irritating theme last season. In the first 15 minutes of games, the Impact found themselves a goal behind no fewer than nine times. Extending that to the first 20 minutes, the number of occurrences rose to 11.
For a team that liked to play its way cautiously into games, those are fairly damning statistics.
Add to that, in 19 matches when IMFC conceded the first goal, they lost 14 times, so clearly they were better at holding leads than attempting to claw back deficits.
There is a valid argument that similar trends as that last one, are reflected by most teams. But while that is probably true, teams on form, good teams, teams that win things and qualify for play-offs, all return healthier data.
In thirteen matches in which they trailed at half-time last season, defeat was avoided only once.
So, it’s not hard to see where Thierry Henry is coming from, when he talks about FIGHT and players winning individual battles on the pitch.
He played in the successful Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ side, the only one to go through a Premier League season unbeaten, and only the second after Preston North End in 1889 to record the feat in England’s top tier, a truly phenomenal achievement.
The side was full of heart and character: Patrick Vieira, Henry himself, Dennis Bergkamp, Gilberto Silva, Ashley Cole, Robert Pires, and they weren’t the only ones.
That Gunners team played wonderful, entertaining football, but as important as the exceptional flair and eye-pleasing aesthetics produced, it possessed mental and physical toughness in droves; they knew how to fight when the chips were down and possessed the mentality to grind out results when all seemed lost, just like any great side does.
The game has changed from 2004 when Henry’s Arsenal ruled the roost, but the Impact coach expects the same character and commitment from those under his watch, when they step across that white line to do battle for Montreal in 2020.
That’s why he keeps saying... “But whatever, we have to FIGHT!”