How Freddie Ljungberg can save Arsenal’s season

NORWICH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 01: Freddie Ljungberg the Arsenal Interim Head Coach and Per Mertesacker the Arsenal Interim Coach before the Premier League match between Norwich City and Arsenal FC at Carrow Road on December 01, 2019 in Norwich, United Kingdom. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
NORWICH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 01: Freddie Ljungberg the Arsenal Interim Head Coach and Per Mertesacker the Arsenal Interim Coach before the Premier League match between Norwich City and Arsenal FC at Carrow Road on December 01, 2019 in Norwich, United Kingdom. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images) /

Freddie Ljungberg got off to a decent start as Arsenal’s interim manager with a 2-2 draw against Norwich City at Carrow Road on Sunday.

Norwich may be in the relegation zone, but they have already beaten Manchester City at home this season and clearly have the quality to give a side with as many issues as Arsenal a few problems. In the end Norwich were able to score two goals on the counter attack and cause Arsenal a number of issues in the second half. However, Arsenal also showed promise and it is now up to Ljungberg to work out what went wrong.

It was clear from kick off that Arsenal wanted to play on the front foot and press Norwich back. This approach was evidenced by Ljungberg’s decision to select Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi, both of whom are good distributors, at the expense of Lucas Torreira and Sokratis.

Early on, the plan worked, with Arsenal able to press Norwich deep into their own half, while also dominating possession and creating opportunities for shots. By the end of the match Arsenal had taken more shots than in any game so far this season and although the performance was far from perfect, it was a clear statement about Ljungberg’s philosophy.

A key problem for Arsenal though was the fact that they continued to struggle to create clear-cut chances, as had been the case for some time under Emery. Their goals came from a penalty and a set piece and once again play looked slow around the Norwich box. There were slight improvements from a control standpoint, but too many players looked impatient with the ball at their feet and lacking in confidence.

Calum Chambers especially made a number of poor crossing decisions, while Arsenal’s midfield look scared of over-committing. The fact Arsenal’s midfield weren’t willing to test the Norwich defence with their movement didn’t lead to defensive solidity though, as Granit Xhaka was still caught ahead of the ball as Norwich countered.

When it comes to rectifying this issue, confidence will play a large part. Matteo Guendouzi and Joe Willock both look a shadow of the players that started the season, now deciding to play safe instead of taking a risk. This will largely be down to their confidence falling and it might be worth Ljungberg thinking carefully about how he manages the young players. So many of them have looked excellent on occasion this season, but it is clear that tiredness and low confidence is having an impact.

A simple solution in the short-term for Ljungberg is to rotate his squad and relieve some of the pressure on players like Guendouzi, Willock and Saka. All three have been targeted for criticism that is fairly unwarranted and could all benefit from being taken out of the firing line while Arsenal develop.

Another area where a lack of confidence is undermining the team is in defence. When Arsenal don’t have possession, very few players seem willing to make a challenge or prevent the opposition moving forward. This is definitely a hangover from Emery’s regime and it is Arsenal’s willingness to step off out of possession that allows opposition sides to carry the ball for such long distances.

It was this exact trend that played a part in both of Norwich’s goals and it speaks to a lack of confidence, conviction and skill from Arsenal’s defenders. Ljungberg will hope the return of Tierney, Bellerin and Holding can improve this, but it seems Arsenal’s caution in defence is making them more vulnerable.

Furthermore, the constant retreating and chasing back to defend counters could be a reason Arsenal are tiring in the second half of games. In the first half Willock, Guendouzi and Xhaka were having to do so much running because it was so easy for Norwich to get the ball to the edge of the Arsenal area. If Arsenal are able to stop attacks earlier, then the lack of athleticism in the midfield won’t be so obvious.

In conclusion, there are a few takeaways from the game against Norwich that Ljungberg should take on board going forward. Firstly, Arsenal need more subtlety and speed in attack, especially when breaking down tight defences. To achieve this, Pepe should really be brought back in, while Ljungberg could also look at adding either Reiss Nelson or Gabriel Martinelli to create a more balanced front three. This may mean Alexandre Lacazette gets left out, but the new coach should be given time and space to experiment and look at different systems.

Secondly, Arsenal need to close the pitch up to make them less vulnerable to the counter and to reduce the athletic burden on their central midfield. This means instilling a bit more courage in the back four and asking the team as a whole to commit more to playing a high line. It is good to see that in his press conference Ljungberg immediately identified transitions as an area of weakness for Arsenal and in the absence of a more athletic midfield, closing the spaces and relying on the technical ability of Guendouzi, Ceballos and Xhaka is Arsenal’s best bet.

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Finally, Ljungberg must re-integrate Bellerin, Holding and Tierney with the view of finding a back four that is somewhat functional. Given the personnel available to him, Ljungberg is unlikely to find the perfect combination, but there needs to be more confidence from the coach and fans in the defence if they are ever going to raise their game. This is easier said than done, but it is crucial if Arsenal are to improve.