Freddie Ljungberg joined Arsenal just as Arsène Wenger’s French revolution was picking up pace. By the time that the manager had the team’s shape sorted, the Swede would provide the counterpoint to the fire and brimstone of Vieira and Petit and complement the subtle skills of Robert Pirès. Ljungberg’s ability to play anywhere across the midfield line and uncanny ability to score important goals – would make him a key element in the unfolding success story of Arsenal Football Club.
Legend has it that Wenger was convinced of the virtue of signing Ljungberg after watching him play against England during a qualifying game for the 2000 European Championship. Wenger authorised the transfer without ever seeing the midfielder perform in the flesh. That may well be true, but it was no spur of the moment impulse buy. Arsenal’s scouting system had been observing Ljungberg’s progress for twelve months or so, and Wenger had been made well aware of the player’s talents. Whatever swayed the move though, Ljungberg joined the Gunners in 1998. The fee of £3 million would soon look like a shrewd piece of business as the following seasons progressed.
Ljungberg would stay with the North London club until 2007 before moving to West Ham and then across the Atlantic to America. It was his time with Arsenal however that would define his career. To emphasise how important the Swede became to the club, it’s worth noting that after his first season in North London and excluding the final one as his time was running down, he would average a shade under 40 games per season for a club challenging for the top trophies. It’s little surprise that he became a legendary figure with the Gooners. All fans appreciate a player that gives his all for the cause, almost regardless of his level of ability. Ljungberg certainly did that, and had the ability to make his mark in a team destined for glory.
A goal on his debut against Manchester United is never a bad way to introduce yourself to a new club, especially one against a team that had been undisputed top dogs. With Ljungberg in the side, Wenger’s team were about to dispute that hegemony, and that strike in a 3-0 victory laid down a marker for things to come. It wasn’t only that Arsenal would challenge United’s supremacy over the coming seasons, it was also that in the Swedish midfielder, Arsenal had a player with the invaluable knack of scoring vital goals.
As well, as the opening day strike against United, he notched the equaliser in another battle against the Reds that opened the door for an Arsenal fightback and a 3-1 victory. Plus a goal in a vital 2-1 victory at Anfield. He also has the ‘football quiz’ distinction of being the first player ever to score an FA Cup Final goal outside of England, when he notched the opening strike in the 2001 final staged at Cardiff’s Millennium stadium. Sadly for the Gunners, two late goals from Michael Owen meant a loser’s medal that season, but Arsenal and Ljungberg were back the following term and he notched the second goal against Chelsea to take the cup to North London. In the process, he also became the first player in four decades to net in successive FA Cup Finals. Whilst on the subject of cup success, he also scored in the shootout that defeated Manchester United in 2005. There was far more to Ljungberg’s game than goals though.
An ability to fill in spaces across a variety of positions can sometimes lead to an oversight of a player’s ability, and the Swede’s flexibility and willingness to be deployed as his manger required may well have led to such a scenario, but Ljungberg’s quality spoke above that. When both Overmars and Petit left North London in the summer of 2000, Wenger had little hesitation in Ljungberg being the man to fill one of the midfield voids, and he was a key member of the famous ‘Invincibles’ squad that completed a league season undefeated. Often overlooked by pundits who focused on the more noticeable talents of Henry, Viera, etc, team-mates and fans alike were less blind to the value of Ljungberg to the team. It’s therefore of little surprise that Freddie Ljungberg was voted into 11th place in a poll of Arsenal’s top players.
As the years ran on though, persistent injury problems with hip and ankle became a debilitating factor. Such things often occur with players who perform consistently, and push pains and aches to the back of the mind in search of regular game time. Inevitably, however, there is always a debt to pay for such bravery and despite an admirable tenacity, Ljungberg’s effectiveness was inevitably denuded by the chronic injury problems he was suffering. In the 2006-07 season, he would feature in just 26 games for the Gunners, the lowest since his initial season in North London. It was clear that the end was near. Goals had also dried up, with just two coming in that and the previous season; a calamitous fall from the 14 netted in the 2004-05 term.
In July 2007, Ljungberg was transferred to West Ham United. If the Hammers thought that they had signed the paler of half-a-dozen years previous though, they were mistaken. Although still offering typical application, it would take Ljungberg seven months to net his first goal in claret and blue and at the end of the season, both parties agreed to terminate the deal. In typically honest terms, Ljungberg confirmed that he gave his all, “at West Ham and enjoyed my time there but the decision is the best for the both of us.” He was not the type of player to sit and collect his paycheque without being able to contribute.
After a time out of the game, and when he finally decided to hang his boots up in 2014, it was clear that the love affair between the Swede and Arsenal still burnt strong. In 2013, he rejoined the club in an ‘ambassadorial’ role, before becoming a member of the Academy coaching staff three years later. A move to VFL Wolfsburg as an assistant to new manager Andries Jonker in February 2017 was a steep and unpleasant learning curve with the manager and his staff dismissed just six months later. In May of 2018, he was welcomed back into the fold as Head Coach of the Arsenal’s U23 squad and was later promoted to Assistant Coach for the first team. It seemed a much more suitable appointment for Arsenal’s underrated and often ignored Swedish star.