At the age of 12, Angelo Henriquez had an important decision to make: tennis or football. He was talented at both, but knew that he would have to focus on one sport if he was to become a successful professional. He chose football, and having recently agreed a deal to sign for Manchester United, it seems clear he made the right choice.
“I’m fulfilling a dream that I have had for a long time and that I can soon make real”, he commented upon completing his medical. “Imagine it, just to be able to play and share a dressing room with people like Wayne Rooney. It’s a dream."
That dream has been in the pipeline for at least three years. Back in 2009, at the age of 15, Henriquez was one of two promising Chileans invited to Manchester to train with the club. He impressed Sir Alex Ferguson and his coaching staff and soon thereafter Manchester United agreed a first option agreement with his club, Universidad de Chile, that entitled them to purchase the young striker for a pre-agreed fee at any point up until his 20th birthday.
Ferguson spoke to Henriquez at the time, telling him Manchester United would come calling once he had established himself in Chile. Such a prospect appeared distant as, with Henriquez still in the reserves, Universidad de Chile swept to success in both domestic tournaments and the Copa Sudamericana in 2011, playing a swashbuckling brand of high-energy, high-entertainment attacking football than was the envy of the continent. But, as is always the case in South America, performances of this ilk put the club’s players in the shop window and a number left for pastures new prior to the commencement of the 2012 season.
In particular, the retirement of Diego Rivarola, combined with the departures of Gustavo Canales and Eduardo Vargas left spots open in La U’s attack. Henriquez staked his claim immediately. He made his debut off the bench in the 85th minute of a 5-1 home win over Godoy Cruz in the Copa Libertadores and five minutes later marked the occasion with a goal, latching onto Eugenio Mena’s lofted pass over the defence, taking the ball forward and firing emphatically into the back of the net. His first start, and two more goals, followed in a 4-1 defeat of Cobreloa the following week.
But it was not just Henriquez’s goalscoring prowess that caused La U’s Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli to make him a regular thereafter. Playing alongside Junior Fernandes as one of two wide forwards either side of the ‘false 9,’ Gustavo Lorenzetti, in a 3-4-3 formation, Henriquez impressed with the sheer variety of his play, equally adept dropping back to help in the creation phase or on the shoulder of the last defender, using his lightning acceleration and pace to latch onto through balls behind the opposition defence.
Further goals followed though. Twelve of them in fact, including a late brace in a majestic 6-0 win over Deportivo Quito in the Copa Libertadores, further two-goal hauls in domestic victories over Antofagasta and Huachipato and, most significantly, a goal a-piece in two annihilations of La U’s great Santiago rivals Colo Colo. The first, in a 5-0 win in April that was La U’s biggest ever victory over Los Albos, marked the day on which the torch was passed from Rivarola, the former fans’ favourite, to Henriquez, the new darling of the Estadio Nacional crowd.
Upon scoring his goal – a deft looping volley – Henriquez unveiled a shirt bearing the image of ‘Gohan’, who is the son of ‘Goku’ in the Japanese anime Dragon Ball Z. Rivarola was known for revealing a ‘Goku’ shirt when he scored, especially against Colo Colo. Henriquez, paying homage to the man whose number seven shirt he had inherited, on that day claimed the striker’s habit for scoring against Colo Colo – Rivarola notched seven against them in his career. Rivarola commented that he was ‘surprised’ and ‘proud’ following the young striker’s gesture.
Henriquez has made quite an impression in the half a year he has been playing senior level football. But, understandably for one so young, and despite the general maturity of his performances, there are certain areas of his game that require improvement, most notably the quality of his decision-making under pressure. He could also do with gaining strength, because although his pace and intelligent movement generally allow him to operate effectively despite his slight frame, his deficiencies in this area were made starkly clear by Boca Juniors’ strong, experienced central defenders in La U’s Copa Libertadores semi-final defeat in June.
In an ideal world, Ferguson would probably have been content to let the 18-year-old play out 2012 in Chile before bringing him to England. But with Manchester United’s cash-rich local rivals Manchester City threatening to muscle in on the deal after being impressed by Henriquez’s performances for Chile’s Under-20 side, the club moved quickly to secure the signature of one of hottest prospects in South American football.
Ferguson is yet to make it clear what his plan is for the young striker, but with stiff competition for the first team forward positions there seems little chance of Henriquez receiving much playing time in the Premier League. A loan to a lower league team may be an option, but it seems most likely that Henriquez will join the club’s squad in the new Under-21 Premier League and be under consideration for minutes in the League Cup
John Calvert Toulmin and Jose Mayorga, the two scouts that initially recommended Henriquez to the Red Devils, will be on hand day and night to aid his adaptation, dealing with any difficulties he may face as he looks to put down roots in Manchester. His brother has revealed that Angelo already speaks good English, which should be a great help, as should his commitment to realising his potential. “I know that if I want to be a footballer, I have to be very professional and not get caught up in the parties or the gossip columns”, he said earlier this year. “Besides I don’t like that sort of thing.”
Level-headed, highly-talented young footballers seem to be somewhat of a scarcity these days and in snaring one Manchester United have laid down a clear marker of their determination to continue at the top-level of the English game for the foreseeable future. The likes of Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer can breathe easy, but give him a year or two to flourish and Premier League goalkeepers on the receiving end of Henriquez’s crisply struck volleys certainly won’t be able to.