Simplification Key to Freddie Ljungberg’s New Arsenal Adventure
From the outside, it may appear to some that new Arsenal head coach Freddie Ljungberg faces an impossible challenge in his new role. Tasked with righting the ship of a team whose pre-season aspirations of Champions League qualification had begun to resemble more pipe dream than reality, Ljungberg must turn things around quickly if the Gunners are to have any hope of reaching their targets.
Having been present in the dressing room and on the coaching staff this season as confidence withered and form disintegrated rapidly in spite of Unai Emery’s best intentions, the Swede should not need long to identify the areas most in need of addressing. Few, if any, of the Arsenal players have played up to their capabilities so far this season, and Ljungberg will be hoping his players begin to turn out performances far more indicative of their many talents.
Following on from the indecisive, and at times downright confusing, methods of his predecessor, Ljungberg should look to streamline the message he sends to the players. As with Manchester United when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was hired mid-season last year, Arsenal will be hoping that their own club legend can bring the positive vibes back to the Emirates Stadium while avoiding the sort of backslide that has befallen the Red Devils this season.
If there was one immediately noticeable change at Arsenal during Unai Emery’s first months in charge, it was the increased emphasis on conditioning and intensity in training. While the Gunners could never have been branded as unfit under Arsene Wenger (having often played their best at the end of matches in his final years), Emery intended to bring a proactive, pressing approach to the club that would require players in peak physical condition.
It started promising enough, with the players feeding off the excitement in the stands, borne out of a new era of Arsenal football. However, by the winter, as play dropped off, and rumours of a rift between Emery’s own staff and the Director of High Performance Darren Burgess about workload management emerged, the players seemed to lose their burst. The rough winter months were highlighted by Hector Bellerin’s serious knee injury, which some suspected was at least in part attributable to the unrelenting intensity of Emery’s training sessions.
This season has seen the players’ energy levels drop off even more toward the end of matches, with the team failing to register a shot on goal in the second half three times during the month of November. Emery had long since abandoned the press last season in one of his many experiments to shore up the defence, but this season it appeared as though the players never had the legs or the intent to press from the front while he was still in charge.
It is entirely likely that Ljungberg will somewhat reduce the workload in training, at least at first, until the team are fresh enough to last 90 minutes with the requisite intensity to see matches out. In his press conference this week, Ljungberg was coy about what exactly he would do to get the team moving in the right direction, but time will tell exactly how radically different his approach in training will be.
A Stable Vision
Emery’s training sessions were certainly more draining on the players than Wenger’s had been, but the physical strain alone was not enough to cause the malaise at the end of his tenure. As had been leaked repeatedly in the press before his departure, the players had grown tired of the constant chopping and changing of the tactics, the team, and even the baseline philosophy of what the team would look to do on the pitch.
Players like Lucas Torreira, Mesut Ozil and Granit Xhaka had grown frustrated with his style of man-management and his refusal to use certain players in their best positions. The players would take to the pitch on the weekend and within minutes of the start of the match, it would be clear there was neither the confidence nor the desire to execute the plan as laid out by Emery during the week. It was somehow chaotic and stifling of creativity all at once
On this front, Ljungberg’s brief is clear: establish a consistent style of play in the side and put the players in their best position to succeed. Emery’s desire to have the team be tactical chameleons prevented the players from building on the foundations being laid at the beginning of last season.
For Ljungberg, this means figuring out whether or not he wants both star strikers in the starting XI together, whether Nicolas Pepe can be the asset his £72m price tag suggests, whether Mesut Ozil will continue as the number ten, and which combination gives him the best defence in front of Bernd Leno’s goal.
Fun and Fundamentals
During Freddie Ljungberg’s first interview released on the club’s website following his appointment, the Swede made specific mention of the need for players to have fun again. In his experience, he opined, players play best when they are happy and having fun on the pitch.
When watching Arsenal play in Emery’s final weeks at the club, the lack of joy in the team was palpable. As anxious as supporters get once it has become clear a coaching change is imminent, the situation is just as hard on the players. Without positive results to validate the exhaustive film study sessions and lengthy on-pitch sessions, the players don’t buy in.
Now, given a fresh opportunity to work under a man that every report says has the respect of the dressing room and a new lease on the season, the players can once again focus on playing good football and striving for the best possible results in every match. That includes getting back to some of the most fundamental elements of playing the game like off-ball movement and defensive communication. In spite of their obvious importance to success on the pitch, these fundamentals are some of the first things to slip once effort and communication have broken down between the coach and players.
The Gunners already showed encouraging signs of life in the first match of the Ljungberg era, clawing out of their usual second-half funk this season to salvage a point in the 2-2 draw to Norwich. There were signs of more fluid ball movement, and quite importantly, increased control further up the pitch that lead to less dithering while playing out from the back and fewer scoring chances for the opponent.
It has to start somewhere. And for Freddie Ljungberg, what better place to restore to its former glory than Arsenal Football Club? Even if the right things to do in the immediate future just might be the simplest things.