Freddie Ljungberg probably knew it already, but the 42-year-old was still given a sobering reminder about the scale of the job ahead of him as Arsenal boss.
Unai Emery’s replacement saw his first match at the helm end in a 2-2 draw away to Norwich on Sunday.
It was a point earned only after some heroics from Bernd Leno in the Arsenal goal, and the stalemate has become part of a lengthy dire run of form for the north London club:
The numbers don’t look good, but the Gunners shouldn’t fret. Ljungberg’s tactical blueprint will improve this team, provided the club’s former midfielder is given time.
His first team selection raised eyebrows, with players such as center-back Shkodran Mustafi and midfield schemer Granit Xhaka being brought in from the cold.
Many were likely left confused by the continued absence from the starting XI of club-record signing winger Nicolas Pepe, who stayed on the bench.
Yet what was more telling than the personnel was the way Ljungberg deployed his players. It wasn’t in the 4-4-2 diamond shape many envisaged:
Instead, Arsenal adopted a 4-3-3 formation for Ljungberg’s first foray into the senior job. The alignment allowed the Gunners to produce the same possession-heavy, slick style of play that Ljungberg once performed as a player for Emery’s predecessor Arsene Wenger.
Getting back to the expansive and attractive game Wenger preached has been made a priority by Ljungberg, according to ESPN FC’s Julien Laurens: “He insists on going back to play the Arsenal way, with flair, movement and energy.”
There was ample fluency and perception in the way Arsenal bossed the ball from the off at Carrow Road. Ownership of possession had been something the Gunners rarely enjoyed on Emery’s watch, when the quality of play deteriorated at an alarming rate.
Things changed instantly thanks to Ljungberg’s formation. The 4-3-3 created partnerships out wide and time and space in central areas.
Those partnerships included full-backs Sead Kolasinac and Calum Chambers doubling up with Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the flanks. Meanwhile, midfielders Matteo Guendouzi and Joe Willock, playing on the edges of Arsenal’s central trio, provided the links between the full-backs and those ahead of them.
Guendouzi has been off the pace in recent weeks, but the young Frenchman produced one of his best displays of the campaign. The 20-year-old kept the ball well and became a feature of Arsenal’s pass-and-move game.
Forming units in wide areas meant the player on the ball for Arsenal never lacked for an option when looking for a pass. The sight of an Arsenal player searching in vain for a target, common during the dog days of the Emery era, was no more.
Willock also played a key role. His runs from deep to supplement the front three drew Norwich players out of the middle. This left Xhaka with more room and time to pick his passes.
The Swiss frustrates fans with his lapses in judgement, but he is a superb technician with the ball at his feet. Xhaka’s freedom, along with the overloads on the wings, are why Arsenal got back to their pass-happy best:
Of course, those passes didn’t yield three points, and it wasn’t all down to Mustafi and David Luiz wilting at the heart of defense. The Gunners also failed to turn possession into goals because their chief creators’ ideas didn’t quite come off.
Alexandre Lacazette had a key role to play as the link man at the tip of the attack. Unfortunately, the Frenchman’s well-intentioned touches and flicks often missed their target.
Lacazette and those around him would have received the ball in better positions had Ozil found his range. While the mercurial No. 10 stayed busy, his end product proved ultimately lacking.
Many would contend Ozil is more of a threat from a central position, but there was a method to Ljungberg’s decision to shunt him wide. Wenger often payed Ozil on the left during the playmaker’s first season with the club, the 2013-14 campaign.
It succeeded in taking a languid player lacking physicality out of the meat grinder common in England’s top flight. Ozil had a certain license to drift infield, the same freedom Ljungberg afforded the 31-year-old at Norwich.
Finding his feet under Emery was an ongoing problem for Ozil because the former wanted a team based more on industry than artistry. Lucky for Ozil, every move Ljungberg has made so far has been geared to make Arsenal a ball-playing wonder again.
The formation, the inclusion of players like Mustafi and Xhaka, whose work on the ball was valued more than the liabilities they are off it, revealed the Ljungberg blueprint.
It will work to get Arsenal’s season back on track provided Ljungberg is given time. Shedding the Emery pragmatism and returning to the Wenger model won’t be an overnight process.