Freddie Ljungberg: ‘Arsenal needed a big trophy every year. I loved it’

I never, ever get nervous. But the day I made my debut for Arsenal, I remember standing on the side of the pitch ready to come on – and I felt nervous. I’d only been in England for maybe five days. I had managed to play in a reserve game in that time, but I was a young player making a big move to a big city – and my first game was against Manchester United.

I was on the bench, and after about 25 minutes the fans started singing my name. I came on for the last 10 minutes or so, replacing Nicolas Anelka, and I managed to score just a few minutes later. It was an amazing feeling – any anxiety I had felt before I came on the pitch just disappeared.

We had waited a long time to make that move. I had made my debut for Halmstad at 17, but some big teams had come in for me even before that, and then again when I was 18. We had turned them all down though, because I didn’t feel ready.

By the time I was 20, I wanted to be a regular in the Swedish national team. I had enjoyed a good season with my club and we knew of some clubs that were interested, including Arsenal. I played in an international game for Sweden against England, and then one more game for Halmstad – I think I got a penalty and we got four assists in a 6-4 win against Norrköping. The next day, I met with Arsène Wenger.

He was so convincing. We talked for a long time about how he saw football, how he wanted to play the game. Winning was important to him, but so was respect. Something just clicked in me; I had to sign. I don’t think we even talked about salary, just football.

It was what I had prepared myself for over the last four years, so I wasn’t really daunted. It was a new country, a new club, but I learned quickly that it was a strong environment. You needed to perform to be accepted.

About a week after I joined, I remember Pat Rice said to me: “Just so we’re clear, what’s demanded at this club is that we win a trophy, a good trophy, every year.” I loved that, because that was who I was – that’s what I wanted too.

Before joining Arsenal, I had played my whole life in central midfield or as a No10 in a 4-4-2. Now, I was at the champions in the best league in the world. We knew that the step up would be big, and even more so playing on the right or sometimes the left of midfield.

I had never really played in either position, and in my first year I felt I was still learning. As a number 10, playing more centrally, I could peel off, drop away from my marker, get the ball, isolate and go past him on either side. Playing as a winger, that went out the window; I was always marked and it felt like I couldn’t get the room to play.

I had to learn, and I wanted to prove that I could do it. That summer, I decided to knuckle down and learn the position. Football in England was so physical and I was a small player – but I always tried to play with energy, I was quick and I loved one-on-ones. I didn’t want to fail.

Now, as a coach, what warms me most is helping players to succeed. As a youth coach at Arsenal, the important thing for me was to teach them certain things that would act as stepping stones to getting them ready for the first team. Football can be complicated sometimes, but I like to make it as easy as possible for players to find solutions – and that can mean having difficult discussions with people who don’t agree with you.

When I was coaching the Under-23s at Arsenal, I wanted to bring Bukayo Saka up to play with us. I faced a bit of a reluctance from those who felt he wasn’t ready: “No, he’s playing with the Under-18s – he’s not ready.”

“No chance,” I said. “He’s going to come up and train with me. I’ll show you he can play.” It wasn’t about his size or his speed, or how powerful he was when he was young; it was about his decision-making and execution. He did the right things at the right time – crossing at the right time, dribbling at the right time, hitting the right teammate at the right time. Even at a young age, you could see that Bukayo was doing the right things – and I have been lucky to coach so many young players like him, with that desire to get better. I feel very proud to see them progressing.

The summer after my first season at Arsenal, Thierry Henry signed from Juventus. We were the same age and became good friends – and I think coming to the Premier League from a different country, as I had done, it took him a year to adjust. The tackling was different and the football was so physical; at times, it was almost a relief to play in the Champions League.

Martin Keown has spoken about how he kicked Thierry a lot in training, to prepare him for the physical aspect of English football. We obviously all know now about Thierry’s pace, technique and movement – he was very good one on one and loved drifting out to the left, where he could just pick up possession and beat defenders – but he was so powerful, too.

A smaller striker – someone like Michael Owen, for example – might not have enjoyed a centre-back like Sol Campbell using his size and physicality to hold him off. Against Thierry, centre-backs couldn’t just lean across and use their power against him – he was too strong, and then he was too quick.

As a young player myself, playing with guys like this was amazing. I wanted to be in a competitive environment, to learn from these amazing people and players – and, at Arsenal, they were everywhere. Look at someone like Manu Petit, who I have always thought was so underrated. Amazing player, amazing personality. On that left foot, he could ping the ball wherever he wanted.

Alongside him, Patrick Vieira was a great leader – a player who spoke when it was needed, but who led more through how he played, which was full throttle. Football was more physical at that time, too. Tackles used to fly in, but Patrick was so tall and strong – he could always get to the ball if there was a slide tackle, and he used his size to his advantage in every sense.

I would say the same about Dennis Bergkamp, who I loved playing with. He liked to drop back into deeper areas, which allowed me – and, in later years, Robert Pires – to roam a bit freer. He was such a great technical player, but also much bigger than people thought and very physical. Dennis knew how to protect himself, and defenders found it so hard to push him off the ball.

And then there was Highbury. Whenever I invited friends to games there, I gave them tickets close to the pitch and told them to watch the pace of the ball. The pitch was so small – much smaller than the Emirates – and the fans were just on top of you, so we loved it. Everything had to be so much quicker. When I meet players from other teams now, they all say how intimidating it could be to play there.

At the end of my first season at Arsenal, we lost to Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-finals. At the end of my second season, we lost to Galatasaray on penalties in the Uefa Cup final. Then, at the end of my third season, we lost the FA Cup final to Liverpool – and I probably shouldn’t say what I feel about that game here! We played some amazing football and should have won it, but I think Stephane Henchoz saved the ball on the line with his hands about three times and there were no penalties. In the end, Michael Owen got in behind us with his pace and won them the game.

This is football, though. Defeats hurt, but they are the games you learn from most – and then you come back and fight for more. There was disappointment, but there was also the right level of anger. The coaching staff didn’t need to say or do much.

That team was full of players who had been winners, either with Arsenal or at previous clubs, and they wanted to be winners again. It was also a team in transition – some of the older players had gone, but Arsène was building a new team and we knew we were going in the right direction.

Anyone who has been close to Arsène Wenger knows how much he likes to win. He is a gentleman, of course, but he would show if he wasn’t happy in his own way – and we would know it.

Arsène was also someone I spoke to when I started to think about coaching, along with my old national team coaches, and they thought I could be good at it. One said to me: “You see the game tactically.” That gave me the confidence, and I think that is one of my strengths – that I can see what’s going on from the side of the pitch.

I’ve also heard a few times: “Oh, I didn’t see you becoming a coach.” But I like that, because it gives me an edge. There is maybe a stereotype of the players people expect to become coaches. Maybe people didn’t see me as an obvious choice to go into coaching, but I have had different experiences and see things a little bit differently. I think my strength is in man-management and personal relationships, knowing how to get the best out of players.

The advice I was given was that, when it came to coaching, I could maybe jump a few hurdles because I was an ex-player – but that, if I did, it would be much easier to fail because I wouldn’t have the experience that I needed. I wanted to work my way up, to get the knowledge I needed to succeed.

So I started with younger players – as much for me to learn from them as for them to learn from me. As a coach you need to understand the younger generations, and I wanted to know how they see the game.

So I worked with the Arsenal Under-15s, Under-16s and Under-19s, then went to work as an assistant coach at Wolfsburg in Germany before returning to take the Arsenal Under-23s. Then, of course, I moved up to the first team and had a short spell as interim manager at the club.

I tried always to take certain steps that were well thought through, and always spoke to people for advice on the best way. It was never about getting quickly to the top, but doing the things that would make me more ready to get there.

It’s now five years since I started coaching, and I think I’m ready to make the next step to be a manager. I’ve learned, above all, that as a coach you have to see the human being as much as you do the football player. Everybody is different, and I try to take the time to understand every player I work with.

I had an old national team coach who knew I didn’t always sleep at night. He would come to my room at midnight and, if I was still awake, ask if I wanted to sit up and talk about football. We’d sit and chat for a couple of hours; he taught me so much, and I loved him for that. On the pitch, I wanted to fight for him.

He did everything he could to help all the players, and I need to do the same now I am a coach. If there is an issue or a problem, something that needs solving, there’s no point in getting annoyed; maybe we just sit on the grass for an hour or two and find a solution.

Some coaches might not be as interested in that approach, but in doing so I believe I might get that extra five or 10% out of my players. When you’re in a tight game, the win might depend on that five or 10%. That’s just how I see it.

With Arsène, the players were allowed to be individuals – but he was strong on respect and had no time for arrogance. You always understood what he was doing, and you could see why he made the decisions he did.

We were always trying to get better with every season. In the years since I had joined in 1998, that meant getting more pace in the team. It was the one thing I felt that, in the modern game, we most needed – and in the 2001-02 season it all came together. We played some great football.

As a player, I always wanted to win the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League. To finally win two of those three in the same season, having been fighting for them for a few years, felt good. Everyone talks about the Invincibles year, I know, but we were a team of winners and that season it felt like we were getting there – finally doing what we were made to do.

There is always an evolution to all great teams, and it’s now very famous that we became the Invincibles in the 2003-04 season. Of course, that’s a nice thing to look back on. At the time, though, I didn’t really think about it; we just wanted to win the league and win as many trophies as we could.

Some years later, after I had retired, one of my godchildren was watching a DVD of that season. I scored in one game, and all the players came around me to celebrate – my godson laughed at how small I was compared to everyone else. I always look back and think about just how massive that team was. The power and athleticism within that team was just enormous compared to a lot of other teams at that time.

I’m very, very proud of my role in that team, and that I stayed at Arsenal for as long as I did. I loved what the club stood for in terms of its values, and of course I’m happy we won a lot of trophies. Maybe we should have won more. I speak to players from other teams and they say they can’t believe we never won the Champions League. Losing the 2006 final to Barcelona was probably the worst day of my football career, but when you hear people say that you have to take it as a compliment.

It was also an amazing honour to work as interim manager at the club. It was a tough period, as everybody knows, but I learned a lot and I think the players responded. I knew I wouldn’t be in the role for the long run, but I also knew that the future of the club was in its young players and I am proud that I was able to give Emile Smith Rowe his first Premier League start for the club against Everton. I’m also proud to have given playing time to the likes of Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Joe Willock too.

As an Arsenal man, to stand on the touchline, put my stamp on the team and push young players through was a great honour. I’ve done that, and now I’m ready to push on. It’s important that my next step is the correct one, but I feel good. I’m excited to see where it takes me.

This article was published first by The Coaches’ Voice, who are hosting their inaugural football coaching conference on Tuesday 7 September at The Drum in Wembley. Ralf Rangnick is the keynote speaker.

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