One September evening in 1998, Arsène Wenger sat down to watch some of his Arsenal players represent England in their Euro 2000 qualifier against Sweden in Stockholm. David Seaman and Tony Adams were the Gunners gracing the pitch in white that night but a sharp, young winger in yellow caught his eye the most.
That exciting prodigy put in an impressive display against many of the Premier League’s top stars and, despite not seeing him play live, his performance against England was enough for the French manager to strike a deal with Halmstads for the intriguing, mostly unknown signature of Karl Frederik Ljungberg.
In an era before Zlatan Ibrahimović, Sweden’s footballing hopes rested on Freddie Ljungberg, and the Nordic nation enjoyed more success at major tournaments under the talismanic leadership of the former Arsenal midfielder. His position behind the central striker and his hairstyles may have changed over the Highbury years but he is considered one of the most talented players to have graced the red shirt in the Premier League era.
After that friendly against England in 1998, Ljungberg’s journey with his boyhood Halmstads came to an end. Despite being just 20 years of age, the youngster had achieved all there was to achieve in his home country. Since being promoted to the first team in 1995, Ljungberg won the Allsvenskan and the Swedish Cup. His goals and assists from midfield contributed greatly to those successes but, perhaps signalling what was to come, injuries played their part limiting Ljungberg’s minutes on the pitch.
As part of their cup triumph in 1995, Halmstads participated in the Cup Winners’ Cup the following season, and so an 18-year-old Ljungberg, still going by the name of Frederik, was able to experience European football against some of the continent’s top teams. Halmstads hosted a formidable Parma side that boasted the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Hristo Stoichkov and Gianfranco Zola in their ranks. The Italians were dispatched 3-0 in Gothenburg with Ljungberg playing in central midfield and making his mark on one of the biggest stages in Europe.
Three years later, the young Swede was gracing Premier League pitches in an Arsenal shirt. His debut came against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side, who were on their way to a historic treble – and he didn’t disappoint. With the Gunners already two goals to the good through Tony Adams and Nicolas Anelka, Ljungberg latched onto Stephen Hughes’ lofted ball and poked over the onrushing Peter Schmeichel. With that goal against Arsenal’s most competitive rivals, the endearing Highbury crowd warmed to the man from the Nordic country immediately.
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Not long after arriving in England, football fans gave him his nickname of ‘Freddie’ – and it stuck. That goal against United also proved to be his last that season as Arsenal stumbled towards the end of the campaign to finish behind the Red Devils in the Premier League table.
The club were also found wanting in cup competitions with United proving to be Arsenal’s tormenters in the FA Cup, while the Gunners were dumped out of the Champions League at the group stage. Ljungberg’s appearances were infrequent as the Swede strived to establish himself in England and realise his footballing aspirations.
The arrival of Thierry Henry in the summer of 1999 changed Arsenal’s fortunes for the better and the whole team benefitted from his brilliance. Ljungberg became a vital cog in the Gunners machinery and featured regularly, performing in the biggest games and notching against Manchester United for the second consecutive season. Sadly it was in vain as a double from Roy Keane saw Highbury’s visitors come from behind to win.
He was next on the scoreboard in another monster match-up against Leeds with the Gunners coming out on top this time in their quest for the title. Unfortunately for them, they were up against one of the best sides the country had ever seen in Ferguson’s Manchester United, who ran away with the league despite an eight-match winning run from their biggest rivals.
In the Champions League, Arsenal were drawn with AIK, a team that Ljungberg had encountered on numerous occasions while playing in Sweden. AIK visited Highbury in September and came away with nothing but a gentle reminder of their country’s best export after Ljungberg had starred in a 3-1 Arsenal victory, scoring the opener.
In the seasons that followed, a heavyweight of European football was forming in north London, and Ljungberg’s skill, guile and footballing intelligence were contributing more than Arsène Wenger could have imagined a few years earlier while watching him on TV.
This was a time when a French flavour at Arsenal was being ushered in by their masterful manager with Robert Pirès, Sylvain Wiltord and Patrick Vieira following Henry’s excellence. Ljungberg added some steely determination, brilliant movement and composure to the French expressiveness, a balance made Arsenal a trophy-gobbling, all-encompassing machine.
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Two late goals from Michael Owen denied Ljungberg FA Cup hero status after the Swede had opened the scoring in the final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in 2001. The attacking midfielder, sporting a red mohawk, rounded Sander Westerveld in the Liverpool goal before slotting into an empty net. A year later, Ljungberg was at it again but this time he had a medal around his neck.
With the game approaching the final 10 minutes and with the score 1-0 to Arsenal, Ljungberg spotted a gap between the Chelsea defence and sped through it with the ball at his feet. He left John Terry on the floor as he closed in on goal and, as he made it to the edge of the penalty area, he sensationally lifted the ball over Carlo Cudicini and into the far side of the net to send Lee Dixon, who was warming up behind the goal, and the rest of the Arsenal end into delirium.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United beast was slain the season after as Arsenal strode to a first league title in four years. A home fixture against the Red Devils almost guaranteed a Ljungberg goal and the Swede repeated the feat once again. With both teams emerging as early contenders for the title again, they clashed at Highbury with Paul Scholes firing the visitors ahead.
Just after half-time, Pirès ventured inside from the left and found Ljungberg open on the right. With his first touch, he delicately chipped it over the despairing Fabien Barthez. That goal helped Arsenal to a 3-1 win as they cemented themselves as the dominant force in English football.
A win at Goodison Park in early February, courtesy of a Wiltord strike, marked the beginning of a 13-game winning run to fend off a threat from Liverpool. With games running out, the Gunners were victorious over West Ham and Bolton, with Ljungberg finding the net in both matches. As a result, they travelled to Old Trafford with the chance of clinching the title.
Wiltord, assisted by the influential Ljungberg, scored the decisive goal that day to take the title away from Manchester and down to London. Ljungberg ended the season with 12 goals in the league and, due to his outstanding and eye-catching performances, he was named Premier League Player of the Season.
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That summer, Ljungberg’s first World Cup ended in disappointment. In the weeks prior to the tournament in Korea and Japan, Ljungberg had to be separated from Swedish teammate Olof Mellberg after tempers flared in an open training session. Despite the clear divisions within the squad, a talented Sweden side still managed to top their Group of Death ahead of England and Argentina. Suffering from a hip injury, Ljungberg only managed to play two group games and sat out the last 16 defeat to Senegal.
Four years later, with Sweden boosted by the presence of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Ljungberg made his mark on a World Cup. His goal against Paraguay in the group stage helped his country qualify, finishing behind England in second, and reach the last 16 at consecutive tournaments. With Ljungberg feeding the brilliant strike partnership of Ibrahimović and Henrik Larsson, Sweden were proving tough to beat.
Hosts Germany eventually put their fire out in the knockout stages courtesy of two Lukas Podolski goals, proving too strong and organised for Sweden’s gifted attack to break down. It would be as good as it got for the Arsenal man in the yellow of his nation, as Sweden were eliminated on penalties against the Netherlands at Euro 2004, Ljungberg netting his in a frustrating defeat.
Away from international football, Manchester United managed to snatch the Premier League title back from their arch vials but they weren’t prepared for what came next. In terms of goals, Ljungberg wasn’t as influential as he had been in his only previous title triumph at Arsenal, but in terms of contribution to the team’s style of play, he was as important as ever.
In one of English football’s most impressive achievements, Arsenal went a whole season unbeaten, dubbed the Invincibles. Wenger had constructed a winning machine that was as elegant and efficient in attack as it was ruthless at the back. Ljungberg was often deployed on the right but could also play centrally or as a second striker, his versatility proving to be one of his greatest assets.
By that season, the youthful, ostentatious mohawk had gone, mirroring his now less dynamic but no less intelligent game. More silverware came the following campaign in the form of another FA Cup win, with Manchester United bowing down to Arsenal in Cardiff after a penalty shoot-out decided the tense final. Ljungberg, of course, buried his spot kick.
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Despite the numerous domestic successes under Wenger, something was still missing from Arsenal’s trophy cabinet – the Champions League. Ljungberg played in just five of the 13 games during the Gunners’ run to the Champions League final in 2006 due to an injury-plagued season. His team efficiently cast aside Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal in the knockout stages, scoring just four goals across the three ties and conceding none.
Wenger’s men looked imperious and were boosted by the recovery of Ljungberg and his subsequent inclusion in the starting 11 for the final in Paris against a Barcelona side on the verge of something special. The Swede lined up alongside Henry, Pires, Alexander Hleb and a 19-year-old Cesc Fàbregas in attack and against the likes of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Deco and Carles Puyol in the Barcelona ranks.
After an early setback with the sending-off of Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell powered a header past Victor Valdés to put Arsenal in front. The Gunners came close again after the break when Ljungberg smashed an effort towards goal from a tight angle, but his strike was matched by the gloves of Valdes and the score was kept at 1-0.
Two quick-fire goals from the Catalan side, first from Eto’o and then from Juliano Belletti, however, broke Arsenal hearts as their dreams of a first Champions League title were destroyed. They had been 12 minutes away from glory but had to settle for a runners-up medal in a far from romantic ending in the city of love. The match also signalled the beginning of the end for Ljungberg at the club where he’d become a firm fans’ favourite.
After his departure from Arsenal in 2007, Ljungberg became something of a journeyman, stints at West Ham and in Major League Soccer preceding moves to the J League and the Indian Super League, before he turned to a career on the other side of the touchline. A post as the manager of Arsenal’s under-15s was followed by a spell as an assistant coach to Andries Jonker at Wolfsburg.
What lies ahead for Ljungberg in coaching remains unclear but if he can achieve half the success he did at Arsenal then he’ll be in good stead. Blessed with a smart outlook on the game – mirroring his time as a wily and creative force at Arsenal as a player – Ljungberg will be hoping to win the adulation of the crowds once again, like he managed during his time as one of the Premier League’s finest experts at Highbury.
By Billy Munday @BMunday08