Every Monday, theScore’s Daniel Rouse breaks down the weekend that was in English football. Welcome to the “Eye on England.”
With his red mohawk and sideline gig modeling tight designer briefs, Freddie Ljungberg the midfielder wasn’t exactly conservative.
But on Sunday, Ljungberg’s tenure as Arsenal’s interim manager began in a cozy cable-knit sweater and with Granit Xhaka in his midfield. It wasn’t the punkish, daring revision of the Gunners that many fans had hoped for.
To say Unai Emery’s specter puppeteered the 2-2 draw at Norwich City would be harsh. The off-the-ball movement was, for the most part, better. The attack was almost balanced and was more focused than in the latter days of Emery’s reign with Mesut Ozil and Joe Willock posted behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Yet, Arsenal’s glitterati up front is always counteracted by the shambolic huddle at the back. Ljungberg’s selection in Norfolk demonstrated how limited he is while he tries to address the north Londoners’ deep-rooted defensive deficiencies.
Center-back Shkodran Mustafi was brought back into the lineup for his first Premier League start since May 12 and was predictably at fault for both of Norwich’s goals. Teemu Pukki’s opener ricocheted off the wooden defender after he, along with David Luiz, backed off Pukki until the Finn took up the invitation to shoot. Mustafi was then flat-footed as Todd Cantwell took his time to measure a shot into the bottom corner.
Norwich’s superiority in the final 30 minutes of the match would’ve been rewarded with all three points if it wasn’t for Bernd Leno’s athleticism.
“We need to work on the transitions. We dominated and they break us too easily,” Ljungberg reflected after the match.
Arsenal’s sluggish defense is arguably less problematic than the pathetic protection they get from their midfield, and Xhaka’s return from exile will do little to spruce up that department.
The Swiss was pardoned from November’s league fixtures after his heated exchange with Arsenal fans when he was substituted against Crystal Palace, but he was immediately called in by Ljungberg to anchor the midfield against Norwich. Xhaka left too much space in front of Arsenal’s back-four and did little to lift his disappointing season average of just two tackles per game. Oriol Romeu and Joao Moutinho, not the most mobile midfielders, average 3.4 challenges.
Ljungberg knows Xhaka’s limitations. The Swede partnered Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Gilberto Silva, Mathieu Flamini, and Abou Diaby (before injuries robbed him of a fine career) during his playing days with Arsenal, so he knows what to expect from a deep-lying midfielder. But he had few alternatives to Xhaka.
Matteo Guendouzi is an exciting talent, but his sprightliness and vision can be wasted at the bottom of midfield, and his inexperience can be a hindrance. For some unfathomable reason, Lucas Torreira has been used sparingly this campaign and will need to be slowly integrated back into the first-team fold. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, now 22, needs to improve quickly to reach the quality needed for a squad with ambitions of competing for both domestic and continental silverware.
The base of Arsenal’s spine was going to take much longer than 90 minutes to resolve, and the upcoming weeks of selection conundrums and managerial uncertainty are a mere smokescreen from the real problem at the Emirates Stadium: the club’s leadership. Ljungberg’s interim job at Arsenal wouldn’t be a near-impossible task without the pandemonium in the boardroom.
When Ljungberg was trying to sharpen his attack in the closing stages, he turned to 18-year-olds Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli rather than Nicolas Pepe, who cost £72 million last summer. If that £72 million had been spent on a defensive midfielder and center-back instead – or, rather, if there was a semblance of sense behind the scenes – Arsenal would be much closer than seven points behind the top four.
Sadly, the cable-knit conservatism was installed in the dugout rather than the boardroom and, in Arsenal’s current state, Ljungberg will never outlast his bosses.
Will Liverpool let loose?
Once again, Liverpool engineered a slender victory in Saturday’s 2-1 defeat of Brighton & Hove Albion.
Jurgen Klopp’s runaway leaders are becoming experts at notching one-goal wins this season. They’re toeing those fine margins en route to three points more often than notoriously cagey champions such as Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea (2014-15) and Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City (2015-16).
|Season||Team||% wins by 1-goal deficit|
Plenty of Liverpool’s rivals would suggest luck is favoring the Merseyside outfit, but the one-goal triumphs more accurately indicate a team that has matured and can put equal trust in its defense and attack.
While the early days of Klopp’s reign were blissfully chaotic as he leaned on a breathless attack to make amends for an error-strewn defense, he can now use in-game management to chase or see out results with equal success. For Liverpool, a one-goal lead is pretty comfortable.
A short trip to Chelsea wasn’t an ideal opportunity to try to end an eight-game winless streak, but West Ham United dragged themselves from the mire in a manner few would’ve envisaged when they were beating Manchester United in September.
Back then, Sebastien Haller was beginning to convince as the focal point in attack and Andriy Yarmolenko was thriving in a system that lent heavily on width.
However, Haller was benched for Saturday’s 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge. Natural winger Michail Antonio busied himself as a lone striker, Felipe Anderson’s base position was narrower, and David Martin, the veteran who began the season as the Irons’ third-choice goalkeeper, impressed between the sticks on his debut.
Manager Manuel Pellegrini, known for his penchant to attack but not necessarily for taking risks with his starting lineups, deserves credit for his gamble in west London.
Watford are on the lookout for their third manager of the season following Sunday’s premature end to Quique Sanchez Flores’ second reign.
The issue? Too much stability. Watford kicked off this season with eight of the same XI that started the final match of the previous top-flight season, despite their woeful Premier League form suggesting the squad needed an overhaul. The signing of Craig Dawson was never going to be enough to sort out their defensive woes, and there’s been nothing to suggest the extravagant flutter on Ismaila Sarr will sort out the startling lack of creativity from 2018-19.
With those hurdles and eight points between the Hornets and safety, Vicarage Road doesn’t look like an enticing proposition for out-of-work managers at the moment.