Sport360°'s Matt Monaghan speaks to former Sweden star Freddie Ljungberg about his views on Arsenal's class of 2014, his mentor Arsene Wenger and life after quitting football's big time.
A flash of a red mohican was all defenders saw of him in his prime. Skilfully evading offside traps like a cat burglar, for nearly a decade at Arsenal Freddie Ljungberg made an art form of ghosting through iron-clad rearguards as Dutch master Dennis Bergkamp picked the locks.
The Sweden winger was part of a side that redefined British football. Under manager Arsene Wenger’s guise – and alongside thoroughbreds such as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell – the ‘Invincibles’ went unbeaten for 49 Premier League games between 2003 and 2004.
Before injuries took their toll and he departed for West Ham in 2007, Ljungberg was the goalscoring wideman who helped his side claim two league titles and three FA Cups during 328 appearances.
Unlike the current crop, there were no uncomfortable questions about “winning mentality” at the club then.
The 2014 Gunners have the chance to end nine painful years without silverware when they play Hull in the FA Cup final on May 17. Speaking to Sport360° at an Arsenal Soccer Schools Dubai event in partnership with Emirates Airline, Ljungberg backed them to achieve this long-awaited success.
“It is special to win your first trophy, and important. People talk about a winning mentality, and that does not come from just one trophy," declared the former Sweden international.
“The boys are all hungry, and I definitely think they can win the FA Cup. The buy of Mesut Ozil made all the other players raise themselves. They felt more belief than the previous season.
“They had sold players to Barcelona and Manchester City before, now they had signed someone for £42.4 million (Dh249m) from Real Madrid. If we can keep on doing like we did last summer, then we can keep getting better and better.”
Another outstanding issue currently hangs over the club. Boss Wenger is yet to sign the contract extension that will see his 18-year stay extend beyond the summer.
A painful end to the season, in which a dismal spring saw a once-promising league title bid predictably evaporate, has raised questions about the Frenchman’s future in some quarters.
However, you will not find any doubt in Ljungberg’s mind. He is adament when he declared that Wenger must continue patrolling the Emirates Stadium touchline.
“It is very, very important. He built the club, the way they play today," said Ljungberg. "There is no question about it when I saw them building the stadium [which was completed in 2006 at a cost of 390m}, he had a restriction financially compared to when I played.
“That affected him. He could not just buy who he wanted. Now, with Ozil they have shown we have that financial power again. I really want him to be at the helm, leading the club forward and having the opportunity to build the team he wants.”
But will the relief of ending the trophy drought make the 64 year old decide to end his remarkable reign on a high? “You would have to ask him, but I personally do not think so,” Ljungberg stated.
“I know his winning mentality and how angry he was when we did not win one game – so I can imagine how angry he is at the moment. It will be great for him, and will spur him on to try and win more trophies.”
The pitfalls of replacing an icon have been shown in grim detail at Manchester United this season. The decision to dismiss David Moyes on Monday followed a disastrous debut campaign, in which he proved himself pitifully unprepared to follow on from Sir Alex Ferguson’s trophy-laden 26-year spell in charge.
Ljungberg had sympathy for the ex-Everton boss, and did not want to consider what damage a Wenger exit would cause.
“To fill someone’s shoes at a club who has been such a legend at a club, like Sir Alex or Arsene, it is extremely difficult for whomever comes in,” said the 37 year old.
“It is always difficult at such a great club which has had a manager who has pushed the players so hard, and knew all the buttons to push to make them better.
“It takes time to know what makes an individual player tick. It was less tahan a year and he is gone – I feel sorry for him.
“It is not an easy job to follow a legend like Sir Alex. I try not to think about him [Wenger] leaving, I think he will stay.”
Since retiring in 2012 following a globetrotting spell that included sojourns in America and Japan, Ljungberg is happily settled in London with a young family.
But the travelling has not stopped now his boots are hung up. He promotes Arsenal as an ambassador, the club he notably still refers to when talking as “we”.
For Ljungberg, his choice to play in the Major Soccer League and J-league came after falling out of love with the intense glare of the British game.
“I made a conscious decision when I was about 30 that I wanted to do something different with my life. I felt a little bit lost and didn’t trust people, so I decided to move to America.
“It was a personal choice, thinking it would be better to promote football around the world and help give back some of what football gave to me. Maybe the hype of football there was not as big as it was in Europe.
“I never missed it. I remember speaking to [France’s legendary World-Cup winning defender] Marcel Desailly when he was playing, and he said do not stop until you feel you are ready no matter what people say.
“I still go to the semi-finals and finals of the Champions League, so I can think ‘it would be nice to play today’ in those big games. But otherwise, I am enjoying life with a young family.”
Thrust into fast-paced London life at a club that oozed glamour and sophistication when moving from Halmstads BK in 1998, Ljungberg enjoyed a pin-up status.
Famously, the Swede was pictured topless in a high-profile Calvin Klein marketing campaign as he competed with David Beckham for the attention of the fashion world. The hair is all gone now, but the sharp cheekbones envied by male models around the world remain.
Ljungberg did not acquire the taste for adorning billboards, however. A life spent away from glossy magazines, promoting the club he loves while raising a family is clearly enough for this once truly outstanding footballer to find contentment.
“For me, the fame was always the bad part of it,” he said. “It was nothing I ever wanted. We do sponsorship deals as that is simply what you do as a footballer, whether that is with Pepsi, Calvin Klein, Puma or whomever.
“The best part now is that calms down.”
The best thing at Arsenal was that we were all close, and a lot of us socialised off the field. It is hard to pick one, but Jens Lehmann was my neighbour.
I played against Ashley Cole all the time in training. For me, he is the best left-back in the world. He was the hardest opponent and I had him every day in training.
Favourite away ground:
Real Madrid’s Bernabeu was an amazing stadium to play in. It was just on top of you, and such a big stadium.
A lot of people mention the goal I scored in the 2002 FA Cup final against Chelsea. But a more important one was against Manchester United at home when I chipped the goalkeeper from outside the penalty area in 2001.
When former assistant manager Pat Rice took me aside when I joined and told me about the ‘Arsenal Way’, how the club looks after everyone and that we have to win one trophy a year or we are not happy. I remember that to this day – I was a bit shocked but that is how it is at Arsenal.
Favourite player of all time:
I loved how Zinedine Zidane played, and Ronaldo – the old one.