Freddie Ljungberg: The connoisseur of Arsenal’s counter-attack

Words By Musa Okwonga Illustration by Philippe Fenner
October 3, 2018

Berlin is famous for many things, and one of them is the late-night conversation in the smoky and crowded bar that suddenly turns profound. And so it was last week when, pint glasses clutched fiercely to our chests, a friend and I discussed the brilliance of Freddie Ljungberg. I don’t remember exactly how he came up in conversation, only that we arrived at the subject of the Swedish midfielder after a day where our local amateur side, SFC Friedrichshain Internazionale, had just gone six points clear at the top of the league with a 7-1 win. Ljungberg, I think, was being held up as an example of exceptional movement off the ball, a standard which one of our forwards had presumably and briefly reached. Who knows – the night has long since vanished, as Berlin nights do, into a familiarly blissful haze. All I know for sure is that Swedes, with the exception of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, are generally and strangely underrated when it comes to football. (Let’s not forget that Zlatan effectively had to become his own PR agency in order for the world to take notice.) And so Henrik Larsson still does not get quite the credit he deserves, and neither does Ljungberg.

Whilst Larsson was world-class across the board, Ljungberg reached an elite level in just one respect: the runs he made in the final third. Movement is something you can learn, that’s true. But the very best footballers have an instinct for it, just as a chef knows just how many herbs to add to that sauce, or a golfer knows just how much fade to put on that iron. And when it came to movement, Ljungberg was a master; the professor of the penalty-box, a connoisseur of the counter-attack.

This wasn’t so notable at first. When he joined Arsenal, Ljungberg was initially memorable for his neon haircuts, the sort you might see sported by a coachload of teenagers on a school trip. The Swede didn’t really stand out for much else. He had an extraordinary work ethic, but that was par for the course for a Premier League winger, if indeed that’s truly what he was. (I now have my suspicions, as it turns out; I think he was a second striker loitering on the touchline, a jewel thief lurking at the edge of the street just before closing time.) His goal tally for his first two full seasons was unremarkable – he scored at the rate of fewer than one every five games for the Gunners – but, in the 2001/02 campaign, he exploded.

Ljungberg netted 17 times in 39 games, playing the eager assassin to Dennis Bergkamp’s diligent architect. Time and again he would arrive just as the Dutchman appeared to have played the ball aimlessly into space – and the centre backs would turn in horror, since they knew in their guts that Bergkamp never did that. And there Ljungberg was, every time. His goals, like his runs, seemed to come later and later each match, and the most notable of these came against West Ham United at the end of April 2002. Here, Arsenal were mounting a charge towards the championship, but found themselves frustrated until almost the eightieth minute by Glenn Roeder’s impressively disciplined defence. And then Bergkamp took possession forty yards from goal and surveyed his manor, the Dutch sorcerer looking up for his Swedish accomplice, and then Ljungberg did what Ljungberg always did.

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I don’t know where Ljungberg learned the secret of what defenders truly hate, but that year in particular he knew it all too well. I learned the secret when playing defensive midfield for two years in Sunday League; the run that I despised most of all was when the striker arrived at full speed at a right angle to the through-ball. As a defender, you just can’t turn your gaze in two directions that fast, unless you either wish to retire in a neck brace or spin your head entirely off its shoulders. Against West Ham, against that poor centre-back, Ljungberg surged in at the steepest of angles; he thrust an outstretched toe towards yet another Bergkamp pass weighed with the utmost tenderness, like a doting father measuring out a dose of cough medicine for a sickly child. Ljungberg connected: one nil to the Arsenal; the game, and the title, were duly sealed.

I wonder where Ljungberg would play to best effect in today’s game. I like to imagine him at Atletico Madrid, playing as one of Diego Simeone’s fearsomely loyal lieutenants, scoring rarely but decisively before the most hostile of away crowds. There is something about him, beneath the flair of his haircuts, that reminds me of the fury and ruthlessness of the Argentine coach, two qualities that have long lurked beneath Arsene Wenger’s mostly urbane demeanour. And, somewhere in that drowsy Berlin conversation, I like to think that we reflected on how much Arsenal need Ljungberg’s spirit now.

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