Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 February 2020

Freddie Ljungberg's 'Invincibles' mindset can inspire Arsenal turnaround

Interim coach prepares for home debut at the Emirates against Brighton

Arsenal interim manager Freddie Ljungberg will oversee his first home game on Thursday. Reuters
Arsenal interim manager Freddie Ljungberg will oversee his first home game on Thursday. Reuters

“Boom-boom, swap-swap,” explained Tommy Soderberg, the head coach of Sweden, with a smile on his face, after a balmy night in Stockholm. The phrase, delivered in English, raised eyebrows, but then so had the performance Soderberg was describing, that of a livewire 21-year-old who had just completed his first competitive international for his country.

The kid in question was Freddie Ljungberg. The quirky phrase never stuck, but the impression left by the midfielder’s zest, fearlessness and clever use of the ball in a 2-1 win over England in a European championship qualifier certainly lasted.

“Freddie just did his boom-boom, swap-swap” – Soderberg seemed to mean Ljungberg had expertly combined explosive energy with rapid passing exchanges. English football was to see more of it. Ljungberg was soon after that 1998 evening playing for Arsenal, then the English champions.

Twenty-one years on, Ljungberg hopes to hear boom-booming applause for his latest, sudden job swap. Against Brighton, he will on Thursday make his home debut as interim head coach of the club where he spent the longest spell of his playing career, elevated abruptly after the sacking of Unai Emery, whom Ljungberg had served as assistant.

Instant miracles should not be expected in what is his first job of this stature, as the weekend’s 2-2 draw at Norwich proved, but Arsenal’s players and supporters hope at least for some clarity of purpose.

Ljungberg knows he has much to learn, and fast. He intends to take guidance and advice from two elders of his profession: Arsene Wenger, naturally enough; and Sven Goran Eriksson, the compatriot who, like Ljungberg, migrated to English football and stayed with it long-term, as England and then as Manchester City head coach.

To cite that pair is to leave some deliberate clues: Ljungberg wants lessons not in how to bellow at footballers, but how to calmly coax the best from them.

If Ljungberg the coach is like Ljungberg the player, he will be his own man. There were signs of a non-conformist streak in his teens and into his boom-boom, swap-swap 20s: it was detectable in his youthful determination to try and pursue a university education alongside being a professional footballer, although that proved too large a demand.

It was visible in those experimental hairstyles, like the amber mohican, he tried out in the days before being offered modelling contracts with designer clothing labels in the mid-2000s.

Intelligent and driven, Ljungberg was a popular Arsenal player without being a superstar. He could be firm in his ideas – at least one Sweden team-mate found him over-eager to set out his way of thinking as the best way. In his forthright autobiography, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ljungberg’s international colleague, acidly referred to him as ‘the prima donna’, recalling a lordly attitude.

“The prima donna kept saying ‘At Arsenal this is how we do things,” Ibrahimovic wrote, “and that’s how you ought to do things, because at Arsenal they understand things and I play for them’. That’s more or less how it was.”

Some context here: the period Ibrahimovic, not best known for his diplomacy, refers to was the summer of 2004, when Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ were setting great standards, having just won the Premier League without losing a match. If the then 27-year-old Ljungberg felt the 'Arsenal way' worked, he was right.

That connection with the finest of 21st-century Arsenal sides is an asset in his new job. The audience at the Emirates, habitually grouchy, long for a team that again sets the best standards. It is a tough ask. The novice coach who was once an 'Invincible' must motivate a group of players who have not won any of their last nine matches.

In Sweden, where Ljungberg is respected, his progress is watched with curiosity, and his intention to draw advice from Eriksson noted. “Sven is intelligent,” said Ljungberg. “I know some stories about how he treated players and made them feel good and I have ‘stolen’ a little bit of those ideas.”

Up against him this evening is a man whose coaching qualities are far more familiar to Ljungberg’s compatriots. Graham Potter, 44, is in some respects the mirror-image of Ljungberg, the Swede who left home for England young to launch his career. Potter is the Englishman who came into Premier League management thanks in large part to his stunning, pioneering work with Ostersunds, the Swedish club he guided from the fourth tier into the Europa League.

Potter could also use a win, three successive defeats having plunged Brighton to the lower reaches of the table. “We need to be respectful,” he said of Arsenal and their freshman manager. “Freddie knows the game well and will be looking to change things.”

Updated: December 4, 2019 08:28 PM

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