Carlo Ancelotti's availability casts long shadow over Freddie Ljungberg's Arsenal audition
Swede takes charge for the fourth time on Thursday as Arsenal take on Standard Liege in the Europa League
Unai Emery was finished off by the competition that made him. Without his record in the Europa League, he surely would not have been appointed Arsenal manager. Had he won last season’s final, instead of the tame 4-1 defeat to Chelsea, he definitely would still retain the position. Instead, he was sacked the day after a dreadful display in defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt, a half-empty stadium a sign of the apathy towards his Arsenal.
The availability of the triple Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti offers the possibility of an immediate upgrade on Emery, the three-time Europa League champion. But as Arsenal return to the lesser continental competition, it constitutes the Spaniard’s legacy; if, indeed, he left one at all. The first post-Emery win, 3-1 at West Ham United on Monday, leaves Arsenal one point off a probable Europa League place. They are almost certain to feature in it after Christmas. Mathematically, they have not qualified. Yet they are three points ahead of Standard Liege and, as they beat the Belgians 4-0 in London, will finish above them on the head-to-head record, barring a remarkable reverse on Thursday.
Arsenal are a Europa League team, even if less flattering conclusions could be drawn for most of the last two months. Defeating West Ham ended their worst run in 42 years. The reunion with Liege is sandwiched by a London derby and a meeting with Manchester City. In a way, it offers an opportunity to rotate and experiment.
In one respect, that is what Freddie Ljungberg has been doing through his interim regime. But he has been doing it from a position of weakness, not one of strength, casting around for solutions in a squad that has offered few certainties. The unexpected bonanza of three goals in nine minutes against West Ham came, seemingly, from nothing. It underlined the reality Arsenal possess goalscorers who have the capacity to camouflage other failings with bursts of potency.
Yet Ljungberg’s time as Emery’s assistant does not seem to have produced a clarity of thought regarding Arsenal’s squad. Perhaps that is a greater indictment of those who have compiled it than him but the Swede has picked a different centre-back combination in each game to date and a different pair of full-backs (he had even before Hector Bellerin was a late withdrawal on Monday). Only Granit Xhaka has been an ever-present in the centre of midfield. Ljungberg’s preference for those who had fallen out of favour with Emery, from Xhaka to Mesut Ozil to Lucas Torreira, signified the sense of untapped potential left amid confused thinking.
It has permeated into the boardroom. Ljungberg benched Arsenal’s reigning player of the year Alexandre Lacazette at the London Stadium. He and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are close friends, but covet the same position. Arsenal squandered too much of their resources on strikers. It is one reason they have an unbalanced squad. “There are lot of things to fix,” Ljungberg said on Monday and if he was talking of a short-term search for answers, it is true in the bigger picture.
The club’s four most expensive signings – Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ozil and Nicolas Pepe – have never started together. It is hard to accommodate all, even in Ljungberg’s preferred 4-2-3-1. Arsenal have conceded more shots than they have attempted, both in the Swede’s three games and the Premier League campaign, and the excellent Bernd Leno has had to make the most saves in the division. Xhaka was the only outfield starter on Monday aged between 25 and 29, the peak years for many a player. Arsenal have the emerging and the declining but too few at the height of their powers.
Ljungberg said he is taking everything on a game-by-game basis in his audition. What each game underlines is the scale of the task awaiting Emery’s eventual replacement. As Arsenal pursue one of the most decorated managers of all, the temporary appointment faces an uphill task to show the vision to suggest he is the ideal long-term choice.
Updated: December 11, 2019 09:01 PM