Freddie Ljungberg’s first game as Arsenal’s interim head coach ended in a 2-2 draw at Carrow Road, against a poor Norwich City side. It was a disappointing result for all Arsenal fans, but there were certainly some signs of improvement. In this article, I will examine four things that we learned in our first game post-Emery.
It won’t be an overnight fix.
There is no denying that a 2-2 draw with a side who sat in 19th place prior to kick-off is an underwhelming result. However, in my opinion, some fans are already being over the top with the criticism that they are directing at Freddie. While the starting lineup and substitutions raised a few eyebrows and the same individual defensive errors were still on display, it is important to remain realistic regarding our rebuild.
Sunday’s game was the start of the fix, not the end. Despite the fact that we are all pleased to see a change of management, Unai Emery was the only man to blame, regardless of how much we may have tried to convince ourselves that this wasn’t the case.
Ljungberg was always up against it. He came into a squad with little-to-no confidence and was faced with the task of rejuvenating them in just one day of training. This would be a daunting task for any coach, let alone one who hasn’t managed a single game at professional level.
During the first half, we actually performed to quite a decent standard, even if the scoreline didn’t entirely reflect that. We controlled possession, which has been a rarity this season, and restricted The Canaries to very few shots. We were caught out by two quick counter attacks, but the 2-1 deficit at the interval was by no means an accurate representation of our performance up until that point.
Rather ironically, we technically won the second half, despite performing to a much lower standard than we saw during the opening 45 minutes. The problems that we have been seeing all season began to reappear and if it wasn’t for a top display from Bernd Leno, we might well have returned to London without a single point.
Overall, there is much to learn from the game. We saw the good, the bad and the ugly of Arsenal. However, for one of the first times this season, xG indicated that we were very unfortunate not to emerge with three points. Although this is subject to interpretation and based on predictions, when we were winning games under Emery, xG demonstrated that we were winning games due to luck, rather than skill. On the basis of xG, it would have been a fair presumption to assume that our luck was about to run out under the Spaniard, and it was proven right shortly afterwards. Personally, I feel that xG is an important statistic and that this drastic change can only be viewed as a positive.
There is plenty to work on between now and Thursday’s game against Brighton & Hove Albion at The Emirates, but I feel that criticism directly aimed at Freddie Ljungberg is both premature and unwarranted.
Bernd Leno is arguably our most consistent performer.
In a season where there have been very few players who have been dependable on a weekly basis, Bernd Leno has proven to be incredibly consistent. Unfortunately, the German hasn’t kept many clean sheets, but this is by no means a fair reflection of his displays. The shambolic defense in front him, injuries to various key defenders and individual errors have all contributed to our goal difference of -1.
However, despite this negative goal difference, Leno has arguably been our player of the season so far. Our number one has recorded the most saves in the entire division and was our star performer at Carrow Road, in my opinion. Aubameyang may have found the net on two occasions, but Bernd produced numerous top saves. His stop from Kenny McLean in particular was simply world class.
Since signing in the summer of 2018 for a fee in the region of £20m, he has been very, very reliable. He wasn’t thrown straight into Premier League action by Unai Emery, but was presented with an opportunity due to an injury for Petr Čech against Watford last September. Since then, he hasn’t looked back. Man of the match displays at Wembley and Vicarage Road have helped fans to realise just how reliable he has been.
In a market where transfer fees have inflated massively over the past five years, the £22.5m fee is looking more and more reasonable with every passing week. Whether the team performs well or not, he always does his job. He never complains about the lack of quality in front of him and never points fingers. He probably hasn’t received the credit he deserves due to the performances of our defense on the whole, but I believe he deserves some recognition. It is important that we realise just how fortunate we are to have a goalkeeper of his quality. Truly, an unsung hero.
Width is a must.
At Carrow Road, we lined up with a 4-3-3 system. We saw a pivot of a reintroduced Granit Xhaka alongside Mattéo Guendouzi, with Joe Willock slightly ahead of the pair. In attack we saw Mesut Özil deployed on one wing, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the other. Alexandre Lacazette was the loan striker. I don’t think anyone would disagree when I say that Özil is best suited to a free-roaming role as a number ten, while Aubameyang is undoubtedly most effective when playing through the middle.
This resulted in a clear lack of width on Sunday. Mesut is by no means entirely inefficient when he has the ball in a wide area, but being deployed there from the offset limits his impact, in my opinion. There is a severe difference between drifting out wide when playing as a number and playing on the wing for the either ninety minutes. When he drifts, there is no reliance on the German to provide an outlet for our defense/midfield. In contrast, when he is playing out wide, he does have that added responsibility. His positional sense is also more restricted than usual, which limits his influence.
Similarly, Aubameyang is much more effective through the middle. Whilst you could argue that he scored both of our goals on Sunday, I don’t feel that he had a huge influence on the game, outside of that. Obviously, goals are what is most important, but they are almost a given with the Gabonese international. Our captain is more than capable of having a sub-par display in terms of involvement but still finishing the game with a goal or two. He is a phenomenal goalscorer, but when deployed out wide, he is inclined to drift infield in search of scoring opportunities. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it limits our out ball.
Our defenders/defensive minded midfielders tend to come under immense pressure due to the unstable system that her have become accustomed to over the past eighteen months. As a result, having width is necessary in order to have outlets. It makes the game much more stretched and forces opposition fullbacks to stay back and cover, rather than overloading our already leaky defense.
Admittedly, this lack of width wasn’t helped by the fact that both of our first choice fullbacks were unavailable due to injuries. Héctor Bellerín only had one day of training pre-game after a hamstring problem. Meanwhile, Kieran Tierney picker up a knock in the buildup to the game. These two players could certainly have provided some width, but I wonder if it is enough.
Nicolas Pépé hasn’t adjusted as we all would have hoped, but for him to not even get a minute on the field seems criminal. We also have some fantastic young talent in the form of Reiss Nelson and Bukayo Saka. Martinelli is also capable out wide, as we saw vs Eintracht Frankfurt last week and in his cameo against Southampton just five days prior.
Personally, I think that dropping Lacazette for away games may be better for the team as a whole. This isn’t solely down to the Frenchman, it just seems best for all involved. Shoehorning two strikers into a one-striker system is detrimental in other areas, as we have already seen. On the road, we tend to have less of the ball and rely more on counter-attacks. As a result, having two quick widemen either side of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would poise a threat for the fast majority of sides. If nothing else, it would force them to be more cautious in their approach. Potentially not allowing their fullbacks to bomb forward or playing a deeper defensive line. Regardless, it would allow our creative players, such as Mesut Özil, to have more room to manouvre.
Mattéo Guendouzi and Bukayo Saka will face dips in form.
Mattéo Guendouzi has been a shining light in a sub-par season so far. The French youngster has been undoubtedly been one of our best performers. A man of the match display in the North London derby, two call-ups to the French senior squad as well as numerous other impressive displays have earned the 20-year old immense praise from everyone associated with the club.
However, he is not immune from criticism. It is important to realise that there is a difference between constructive criticism and abuse. A player isn’t necessarily a world beater or a liability. There are certainly countless spots in between. Guendouzi’s performance level has dropped somewhat over the past few weeks, but this certainly doesn’t negate his impact so far this campaign, or indeed his ability on the whole.
Most, if not all, young players face a dip in form. While it is important to acknowledge sub-par displays regardless of which player it applies to, it is important to be realistic with our expectations too. Kylian Mbappé has altered the public perception of young talents, but he is simply a freak of nature. Prior to the emergence of the Frenchman, two of the hottest talents in Europe were Ousmane Dembélé and Marco Asensio. Since then, both players have struggled to kick on and perform on a weekly basis. The level of performance that Mbappé has produced has made some fans unrealistic with their expectations for young talent. He hasn’t faced a dip in form, as of yet, so some tend to overreact when their own talents fail to perform for a period.
Unfortunately, this dip in form for Guendouzi was bound to happen eventually. It doesn’t make him ‘a fraud’ or ‘not Arsenal quality’, it simply makes him human. There is no denying that he needs to improve from Sunday’s display, but I believe that he will undoubtedly do so. It is important to remain patient and remember just how good he can be.
A similar attitude could be seen towards Bukayo Saka, following the game. The teenager was introduced in the 78th minute and given just 12 minutes to change the game. He failed to do so, and faced backlash on social media from many fans. Once again, I believe that this is completely unwarranted. Saka only turned 18 in September. There are going to be countless learning curves along the way. This doesn’t put his ability in question, it just makes us become slightly more realistic with our expectations. What is most important now is that we remain behind our players when they need us.
Whether it proves to be a one-off game or six months out of form, they need us now more than ever. Let’s get behind them and give them the best chance to succeed that we can.
Overall, there was much to learn from Freddie’s first game as interim-head coach. Who knows what the future holds regarding the full-time job, but let’s hope that the board make right decision for the club’s long-term future. In the meantime, hopefully Ljungberg can prove up to the job. As always, feel free to leave your thoughts about the game in the comments section below and thank you for reading.