3-1 Arsenal; much-needed music to our ears. In a time where uncertainty begot further uncertainly when former fan-favourite Freddie Ljungberg was appointed interim manager, many across the ‘Arsenalsphere’ remained on edge.
It wasn’t the brightest start under the former Swedish international, either. A 2-2 draw against relegation candidates Norwich, and a 2-1 loss at the Emirates against Graham Potter’s Brighton compounded frustration into borderline hysteria. Shocking, I know.
But on a Monday night where failure to take any points would see us sitting in twelfth, a ten-minute flurry was enough to seal our first three-point haul in the league since October. There was finally something to write home about.
Was it perfect? No, and on another night the result could have been slightly different, but Arsenal are in a position where any result is a positive one. Hard reading and hard truths indeed, but building some semblance of momentum is the current goal under Ljungberg’s stewardship, especially when you consider the run of Premier League figures on the horizon.
Playing host to Pep’s City could put the kibosh on moral before it really kicks off. To make matters worse, a visit to a potentially revitalized Everton, an away day on the south coast (Bournemouth), and then duels with Chelsea and United in rapid succession could signal a Christmas period which could end in disaster. But it doesn’t have to.
One of the characteristics that fans have been desperate to see return to the club has been an ability for us to keep it simple on the pitch. In the waning years of Arsène and during the frustrating period under Unai Emery, so often have Arsenal been criticized for a lack of balance in our tactical approach. Too much control, but not enough end product.
The data reflected this as well. During Emery’s short-lived reign, our xG – and actual goals scored – tanked considerably despite the fact that we remained one of the better sides in the league in terms of possession percentages. A real lack of end-product has been evident and glaring.
It is perhaps fitting that Monday’s result against West Ham could well have lifted the veil on just how we should operate under Freddie, for however long he is the man patrolling the technical area. Simple and direct.
The opening thirty minutes at the London Stadium threatened to end in an all too familiar fashion. Down a goal to a side who – with all intended respect – Arsenal should comfortably be ushering off the pitch. But signs that the match was ripe for the taking had crept into proceedings just around when the Hammers took the lead through Angelo Ogbonna.
As time ticked, Arsenal began to adjust to an ever-increasing direct approach. The pace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pépé, and Gabriel Martinelli, coupled with a renewed license to take players on (a dynamic that was sorely lacking under Emery), was beginning to bear fruit and pull West Ham out of their shape.
Martinelli’s leveller on 60-minutes exploited this to perfection, with Lucas Torreira driving play through the centre channel before releasing Sead Kolasinac into space down the left; the cutback from the Bosnian international found the young Brazilian who maturely slotted home for his first league goal in Arsenal colours. Simple, penetrative, and direct.
Similar circumstances led to Pépé’s go-ahead strike just six minutes later, after Mesut Özil linked well with Auba, who spotted the Ivorian winger in space out wide on the right and isolated one-on-one against Arthur Masuaku. A quick cut to his favoured left foot and a well-struck effort into the far corner was the result. Once more an attacking move that was highlighted by its simplicity.
Özil, Auba, and Pépé would combine again for Arsenals third on the night, when another up-tempo run of play saw the former Germany playmaker find Auba in the box, who’s layoff to Pépé resulted in a lovely return chip to the Gabonese hitman who volleyed home.
Ten minutes; that’s all it took. Though it was but a fraction of the match in total, the Freddie blueprint could well and truly have made itself known.
Truthfully, the balance of our first-team players are well-suited to a system that is more direct. Özil in his pomp thrived in a more penetrative system. Auba at Dortmund, Pépé last season at LOSC Lille, Xhaka and Torreira both internationally and at their former charges, Martinelli, Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson; the list goes on regarding just how many would welcome a more aggressive tactical approach.
Some – if not many – will argue that more expansive football is required to challenge at the highest level. Despite the recent example of Leicester City winning their first-ever Premier League trophy utilizing a well-drilled counter-attack system, it’s clear progressive football directly correlates to silverware.
Arsenal, however, are not in a position this season to be overtly picky in terms of how they look to see out the rest of the Swede’s time in charge. Ljungberg must quickly establish continuity in the team, but also a measure of understanding on the pitch; a dynamic that has been painfully absent in recent months. What better way to instil confidence in your players than to operate in a manner befitting their best qualities both individually and collectively.
It can be argued that Freddie is in the midst of his own audition for the managerial vacancy, but with the amount of noise surfacing around potential successor candidates to head-up Unai’s former red and white army, Ljungberg will undoubtedly have a far more simple remit to adhere to. His tenure – however long it lasts – is about survival and stability, not about progression and expansion.
Sometimes the clearest answer is the simplest one. Overly complex is so often the harbinger of downfall. If Arsenal is to successfully bail the water out and return buoyancy to matters on the pitch in preparation for its next helmsman, it is up to Freddie Ljungberg to provide damage control and get us back to safer waters for proper repairs.