Freddie Ljungberg had only just finished his first game as interim head coach of Arsenal when he was asked about the future.
“What I’m doing is helping the club I’ve been for 20 years with and that comes day by day,” Ljungberg said when asked if he wanted to succeed Unai Emery permanently.
It was a fair question in the current climate.
Both Manchester United and Chelsea turned to former players when sourcing their current manager. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has endured a rollercoaster time at Old Trafford, the early climb under his tenure only made more pronounced by the subsequent drop he has suffered following his permanent appointment in March.
It is still early days for Frank Lampard, but things have started positively with Chelsea currently in fourth.
The success at Stamford Bridge is enough to tempt any Arsenal fan into wanting Ljungberg permanently (Monday saw reports that he was a genuine candidate). The nostalgia attached to the Swede from his playing days is intoxicating. His time with the club saw Arsenal on a high, one of the best sides to ever grace English football. If anyone can crystalise that identity and reinstall it, surely it is the Swede?
“Freddie has Arsenal DNA,” the director Josh Kroenke explained this week.
Only, it’s tough to define what that DNA is. Plus, being so close to a successful situation does not necessarily guarantee the transfer of it. Take Solskjaer as an example. The Norwegian sat next to Sir Alex Ferguson on Manchester United’s bench for many years; he made copious notes in training sessions. He even spent time working under him as a coach.
Former teammates described Solskjaer as analytical, (Ljungbjerg is said to be cerebral). Still, he has been unable to reproduce Sir Alex’s formula for success, despite seemingly knowing most of the ingredients. That is partly because the landscape has changed so drastically between now and then. Manchester City and Liverpool stand in the way of any challenger and have done for several seasons.
There is also a case to be made that imitation is hollow. The truly great managers, while influenced by mentors, eventually make tweaks and adjustments to fit their vision. They adapt and flesh out the ideas, and as yet we do not know which side of the fence Ljungbjerg will land.
Emery’s crime was not a lack of ideas, however. It was the fact he had far too many, and the constant merry go round of tactics generated an identity vacuum. There appears to still be some holdover from that, if Sunday is anything to go by, and that is why Arsenal must be careful and precise in appointing his successor.
Arsenal’s issues are wide-reaching. Ljungbjerg’s soon to be discovered identity as a manager may mask some of the symptoms of that struggle, but greater change must follow Emery’s departure.
“The bottom line is that the team is still sick,” Robert Pires told Canal+ after the Norwich game. “Freddie or someone else, they are going to have to find the right medicine. They are going to have to be patient, but this is a little bit what has been happening since the start of the season. We are weak, we are not calm. When you are lacking confidence, you take less responsibility. You try fewer things.”
The candidate, whoever that may be, must arrive with a clear tactical plan but also be supported by a focused overhaul of the playing squad. If the club’s ambition is to win a Premier League title, many of these players will have to leave. The spine of the side has glaring weaknesses, and while Arsenal have not spent at the same level as some of their rivals, they have still made notable missteps in the market. The club’s choice of central defenders has bred a glaring weakness at the back.
“I have absolutely no clue what he [Ljungberg] sees in Mustafi,” Jamie Carragher said on Sunday. “The others haven’t covered themselves in glory. Sokratis is on the bench; he’s been really poor. I’m not quite sure what formula you come up with there in the back really for Arsenal, it’s not an easy one.”
Arsenal will not return to former glory by just chasing the ghost of their past, but by fundamentally changing their approach. Emery was a symptom of the club’s problem, not the issue itself.
Arsenal have strolled through the Premier League for too long, and they have watched their once great rival Man Utd struggle to transition into a new era effectively. Arsenal will make the same mistake if they appoint Ljungbjerg in the hope it corrects all of the club’s issues. Ljungberg is right to think about the future at Arsenal because it currently seems uncertain.