by Andrew Weber
As an impressionable teenager exploring the wonders of the football world, Fredrik Ljungberg came into my life at just the right time. Dennis Bergkamp may have been the one that piqued my interest in the sport in 1998, sensationally knocking Argentina out of the World Cup and leading me to Arsenal in the process. But it wasn’t until Ljungberg came along that I fell in love with the game of football.
My first memories of Ljungberg as a player are particularly vivid. Mostly used as a substitute in his first couple of seasons at Arsenal, “Freddie” — all spiky brown hair and Swedish swagger — would zip around the pitch like a madman, troubling defenders with his pace, intelligence and infectious enthusiasm. Despite minimal playing time, he had a knack of grabbing the odd goal, including a healthy tendency to score against Manchester United.
It wasn’t until 2002 that Freddie finally got his chance in the Arsenal first team, called upon as a result of Robert Pires’ knee injury. Lesser players would have wilted under the pressure of replacing the Frenchman, Arsenal’s best player and a man in the form of his life, but the diminutive Ljungberg stood tall.
Undaunted by the task at hand, Ljungberg’s sheer force of personality saw him perfectly utilise his two major strengths — constant movement off the ball and an uncanny ability to make incisive runs in the penalty area — to become Arsenal’s most important player in the final third of their double-winning season.
Freddie finished the season with twelve goals, nearly all of them scored in the final ten games, as the previous relationships he had built off the pitch with the likes of Bergkamp, Henry and Wiltord paid dividends. In tight contests, where Arsenal battled for long periods of time, he usually made the difference with a short, sharp run and a decisive finish to steal the points.
My most memorable moment of Ljungberg came during the 2002 FA Cup victory over Chelsea. With the score at 1-0 after a fabulous Ray Parlour goal, Ljungberg scuttled forward from the halfway line in trademark fashion, drew physical contact from a young John Terry — leaving the much larger defender on his backside in process — and curled a superb shot past Carlo Cudicini. It was a microcosm of Ljungberg as a player – pace and power beyond his size, intelligence to spot the space to move into and just enough technique to find the back of the net — and capped a brilliant season for the Swede.
Later that day, when questioned by television reporters as to how it felt to win the FA Cup, a tournament highly-prized by Scandinavians who grew up watching English football he replied emphatically, “It’s fucking excellent”. It was a Freddie response through and through.
While Ljungberg never again reached the heights of 2002, he had made his mark on this writer. A natural entertainer and lover of the spotlight with his red hair and effervescent personality, like Hidetoshi Nakata before him Ljungberg’s greatest success was that he never let his flamboyant personality pollute his performances on the pitch.
As both a short, pacey footballer trying to learn about the game of football and a scruffy teenager trying to find my place in the world, Freddie well and truly left his mark on me. Undeniably cool off the pitch and with the drive, determination and intelligence to get the most out of his somewhat limited footballing abilities, Freddie will always have a unique place in my life.