Sunday, December 01, 2019

By Gerry Cox

It took only seconds for “#LjungbergOut” to appear.

It may have been ironic, a feeble attempt at humour, or even from a Tottenham fan.

But it did not take long for Freddie Ljungberg’s appointment as interim manager of Arsenal to attract the worst of Twitter — before a ball had been kicked under his command, in fact.

As soon as his first team selection was published, an hour before kick-off at Carrow Road, Ljungberg was getting it in the neck for picking Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka, two players that plenty of Arsenal fans would happily never see again with the famous Gunners crest on their chests.

Ljungberg showed the same boldness in his first game as a manager that he demonstrated throughout his career as a player, never afraid to be different or stand out, with his bright red hair.

But by the final whistle, the former underwear model was once again looking a little exposed as Arsenal’s players continued to underperform, exhibiting the same failings that cost Unai Emery his job.

This was Arsenal’s eighth game without victory, equalling an unhappy run from the George Graham era, and it has to be said they only avoided defeat to the Premier League’s second-bottom team because of an inspired performance by goalkeeper Bernd Leno, who kept Norwich at bay time and time again, especially in the second half.

Xhaka and Mustafi may be unpopular, but they are only part of the problem, quite literally. Arsenal’s biggest failings lie in midfield and defence, that is clear for all to see.

Sure, the two of them were central yesterday, but Arsenal’s deficiencies in these areas go back years, and have still not been addressed. It was only when Lucas Torreira went on as a substitute in the latter stages that Arsenal’s midfield had a bit of grit about it.

For the first 70 minutes it was toothless and sloppy, and when combined with the team’s tissue-thin defence, makes for a side that leaks goals.

There was a time when Xhaka provided the bite, if not much else, but even that appears to have gone from his game.

Youngsters Joe Willock and Matteo Guendouzi provide energy, but are lightweight and error-prone, and Mesut Ozil still looks like he is waiting in the wings, both literally and metaphorically.

In short, they appear to have no-one prepared to take a game by the scruff of its the neck, the way leaders such as Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira, or Cesc Fabregas would do.

Ljungberg continued with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as captain, and at least the Gabon striker contributed two goals, one of them a twice-taken penalty.

But his fellow forward Alexandre Lacazette was AWOL again, and it was left to Leno to lead the way with a string of world-class saves to deny Kenny McLean, Teemu Pukki, and Max Aarons.

Therein lies the problem facing Ljungberg and whoever may succeed him eventually. Arsenal are in the top three of one table — Shots Conceded — along with Norwich and Aston Villa.

They allowed the relegation strugglers 15 efforts on goal here, eight of which were on target, and they will continue to struggle if this is repeated, however many goals Aubameyang may bang in.

Arsenal have managed only one clean sheet in the league since their opening-day win at Newcastle, and that is not a sound base from which to build.

“We have a problem in transition and I will try to fix that,” the Swede said afterwards. “We want to be a team that has possession and hopefully when opponents do not have the ball, they can’t shoot so much.”

In Ljungberg’s defence, he had only two days to prepare for this game.

“Normally you have a side for five or six weeks in pre-season, then you can implement in them how you want to play football, but that is not what I have, so I am using small building blocks to try to change things in a slow way so people (the players) can understand it and practise it.”

He will not get much more time with his team before their next game, at home to Brighton on Thursday.

The players need rest and then we will probably get one and a half days before the next game, but that is football. I will try to make it as simple as possible for the players and hopefully we will get better.

It is unfair to make comparisons with Jose Mourinho, another new manager down the Seven Sisters Road after the Portuguese replaced Mauricio Pochettino a week earlier. Ljungberg is a novice at this level, whereas Mourinho has won it all and managed at the highest level for most of his career.

But it is clear to see the immediate impact The Special One has made at Spurs, with three straight wins and the remarkable return of Dele Alli to the sort of form that made him one of the most exciting players in Europe.

Ljungberg has a long way to go if he is to inspire that sort of transformation to the team or individuals, and it can be argued that he does not have the raw materials at his disposal after continued confusion in Arsenal’s recruitment policy.

For too long the club have failed to address the fundamental flaw that is holding them back — a flimsy back four and an ineffective shield in midfield.

Whether Ljungberg, with his attacking instincts as a player, can correct that quickly, or will have time for a longer-term fix, is another matter.

“I’ve been at the club a long time, so I hope they know what I can and can’t do,” he added when asked about his position.

“I’m just looking forward, day by day, and very honoured that they have trusted me to do this. I’m trying to help the players as much as I can.”

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