The future is now. After another underwhelming season, Arsenal needs a fresh start. Whether they attempt to accomplish this by taking risks or overhauling the squad, a lot needs to happen to ensure there’s still light at the end of the tunnel for the North London club.
Following the confirmation that Freddie Ljungberg will join Unai Emery’s coaching staff as an assistant first-team coach from the 1st of July, it looks like the club is starting to put the pieces together to build towards a better future.
Despite being named Arsenal under-23’s new head coach around a year ago, the Swedish coach has received significant praise behind-the-scenes for his outstanding work with the academy side.
While he was unable to guide the youngsters to a second successive league title, Ljungberg showed a lot of potential throughout the season. The 42-year-old introduced a new style of football, awarded opportunities to a number of players from the under-18 side, and also helped improve many players including Joe Willock, Daniel Ballard, Xavier Amaechi, and also Bukayo Saka.
Although some may have improved thanks to their natural talent and ability, it’s worth mentioning the number of players Ljungberg helped improve in the past year. This is one of the main reasons why his promotion to the first team could be crucial to the club’s long-term future.
Last season, a lot of fans, including myself, were critical towards the club’s unwillingness to integrate academy players in the first team more frequently. The likes of Eddie Nketiah, Saka, and Willock proved they had something different to offer the team yet they were rarely rewarded with bigger opportunities.
For obvious reasons, you can’t play a number of young players consistently and expect them to adapt and perform immediately. However, the group stages of the Europa League and certain Premier League fixtures should have been used more effectively to test out the aforementioned youngsters on a bigger stage and see if they’re truly ready for the next level.
At this moment in time, Arsenal desperately needs to rebuild and this season is the perfect opportunity to start that with the club’s fantastic range of academy players. Off the top of my head, Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith-Rowe, Krystian Bielik, and the aforementioned players are all examples of youngsters at the club that deserve more chances to shine.
The introduction of the club’s ‘transition team’ is the perfect way to achieve this. Integrating goalkeeping coach Sal Bibbo to the academy can support the development of goalkeepers like Deyan Iliev and Arthur Okonkwo. Elsewhere, loan manager Ben Knapper can help players get a better loan move like we’ve seen recently with Nelson at Hoffenheim and Bielik at Charlton. Also, Steve Bould is more suited to working with the academy in comparison to his previous role as the club’s assistant coach/manager.
Raul Sanllehi, Arsenal’s Head of Football Operations, is confident the staff changes will have a “significant difference to [Arsenal’s] ability to bring players through to the first team.”
“Identifying, recruiting and developing young players is a key part of our strategy. We have some great talent coming through our younger age groups and, like all top clubs, the challenge is to help them make the most of their abilities,” he said.
In the past, there’s been little information about how players from the under-23s work their way up to train and play at a senior level. The club’s decision to present Ljungberg as the face of this new initiative is encouraging since it shows there’s a clearer pathway in place for players to develop and potentially succeed.
As I mentioned previously, the 42-year-old is already experienced with the academy players at the club and it’s likely he knows what certain players must do to reach the next step. Taking this into account, working under Ljungberg once again but in the first-team setup should benefit the likes of Smith-Rowe and Willock since they are currently expected to play more frequently at senior level, next season.
However, if certain players show they’re not good enough to play at such a high level, they can still help the club in different ways. As we’ve seen in the past from teams like Liverpool, selling young players that still have the potential to improve can help the club generate more funds to then spend in the transfer market.
If Arsenal fails to qualify for the Champions League for a fourth successive season, it’s these type of players the club may look to sell in the market to then generate more funds to spend.
Elsewhere, taking his new role into consideration, it’ll be interesting to see whether or not Ljungberg will be able to replicate some of his success from last season but with some of the current first-team members.
Overall, there’s a valid argument to be made that many players in the squad have not performed to expectations in the last year or so. The likes of Alex Iwobi, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are all examples of players that have the ability to succeed at the club, but they must show it on a more consistent basis.
Keeping in mind the number of players the 42-year-old has helped improve offensively, he could replicate some of his success and work alongside someone like Iwobi or Mkhitaryan to help improve their numbers in the final third.
Additionally, considering Ljungberg tried to implement a similar philosophy to Emery in terms of building up play from the back, the Swedish coach could support players like Rob Holding and Sokratis to be more comfortable when distributing and retaining the ball.
Depending on how the new season plays out, there’s even a chance Ljungberg could be named Arsenal’s new head coach for the 2020/21 Premier League season. According to reports, Unai Emery has a break clause in his contract that can be triggered at the end of the 2019/20 league season. Should this happen, there’s a strong possibility the Swedish international will be one of the leading names to replace Emery and it will be his work from this season that will determine whether or not he’s ready for the job.
As I mentioned previously, the future is now. Arsenal needs a fresh start and the introduction of this ‘transition team’ combined with Ljungberg’s promotion is the perfect place to start off. Whether the 42-year-old is ready to make an impact is anyone’s guess but the changes in place are exciting.
This is Freddie Ljungberg’s season to shine.