The right man in the right place at the right time. That was Freddie Ljungberg. The perfect player to finish off the flowing moves between the likes of Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry – the Swedish midfielder would often time his runs to perfection, catching the opposition defence unawares. The fast inter-passing between his team-mates carved open the opportunity, and Ljungberg’s burst into the box ensured he was there to apply the finishing touch.
This was a familiar sight during Ljungberg’s eight-year Gunners career, and one such goal – against Juventus in December 2001 – particularly sticks in the memory, as much for the build up as for the finish.
Arsenal led the Italian giants 2-1 at Highbury in a Champions League group stage game, and this goal with two minutes to go sealed the win. Gilles Grimandi picked up possession deep in his own half and fed Vieira, who in turn immediately played the ball forward to Ljungberg, and he strode over the half way line leading the counter attack. He then slipped the ball out wide to Dennis Bergkamp who advanced on the Juve defence. The Dutchman kept possession on the edge of the area courtesy of some superb footwork, then flicked the ball through to the onrushing Ljungberg – taking out four defenders in the process – and the super Swede lifted the ball over the goalkeeper to make it 3-1.
Looking back on the goal now, Ljungberg said he wasn’t fully aware just how good a goal it was at the time. “No, not really, you don’t really think about that at the time – it’s all about just scoring the goal,” he says. “Of course you see how nice it was when you watch it back afterwards on TV. But yes, that one was a nice goal of course. I had a great understanding with Dennis Bergkamp, which definitely helped. It was his pass that made it a lot easier!”
Ljungberg, who scored 72 goals in his 328 Gunners appearances, said he particularly enjoyed scoring classic team goals. “It’s true that when there was a team spirit behind the move – that’s what I preferred. With Dennis, for example, I think we could understand each other so well because that was the position I had played my whole life before joining Arsenal: just behind the front striker. It used to be my job to roll in players, so I felt that I knew what he could see from his position and what he couldn’t.
"What makes team goals so special is when someone unselfishly just gives the ball to someone else to score"
"Sometimes when you make a run too early, Dennis – or whoever is in that position – won’t be able to see you. We had an understanding because I knew roughly when he would be able to look up and see me running and when he couldn’t. For me, though, what makes team goals so special is when someone unselfishly just gives the ball to someone else to score. It doesn’t happen in many teams, and that for me was what was special about Arsenal during that era. It was never about the individual, it was about the team.
“A lot of the goals were ‘Arsenal goals’ rather than a Pires goal or an Henry goal, if you know what I mean.”
Although his strike against Juventus was enjoyable, and sealed three valuable Champions League points, Ljungberg is hesitant to call it his best goal for the Club.
“To be honest I’ve never really thought about that,” he says. “It’s a difficult question There were so many that I enjoyed and it’s not something I really concentrate on. The important goals stay in the memory much more, like the one in the FA Cup final, of course, and also against Bolton and West Ham near the end of the 2001/02 season. But as I said, any time it was a real team move, I enjoyed it.”
Behind the flowing team moves that regularly prised open the most obdurate of opposition defences, Ljungberg reveals, was a lot of hard work and planning. Aside from the hours of practice put in on the training pitches, Ljungberg believes that the manager’s recruitment policy also helped foster a sense of togetherness on and off the pitch.
"It wasn’t about the statistics or the fame and I think that’s what makes a great team"
“It’s really hard to put a finger on why we had such a great team spirit, but I think Arsene and the scouting team did a great job on the personality of the players,” the Swede says. “We worked well together but there were rules within the team. People behaved. People were polite to each other – you’d say hello to the cleaner in the morning. It kept everyone grounded, even if we won a lot of things. I felt that was great but I think the main thing was that everybody was at their prime. The tempo was right, the passes came n the right situation and nobody wanted to do one more stepover because it looked good. That was the key for the success.”
And the successes were plentiful. Arsenal won the league and FA Cup ‘double’ in 2001/02 – with Ljungberg contributing 17 goals from midfield – and two years later largely the same group of players became ‘Invincibles’ by winning the Premier League title undefeated.
There were world-class players in every position but, states Ljungberg, it was precisely because nobody behaved like a superstar, that the side was so successful: “As a team, I think everybody was so good. They were maybe all in the top three in the world in each position. But they didn’t compete for fame or to show the manager that they should play and not pass at the right time because they wanted to shine in front of the fans, which happens quite often in football. I felt in that era, there was nothing of that. It wasn’t about the statistics or the fame and I think that’s what makes a great team.”
Five of the best Arsenal team goals:
April 25, 2004
Tottenham v Arsenal
The goal that set Arsenal on their way to the 2003/04 Premier League title. Just three minutes into the game Spurs won a corner, but the clearance fell to Theirry Henry on the edge of his own area. He sped away into Tottenham territory and slipped a ball through to the overlapping Dennis Bergkamp on the left wing. Bergkamp played a first time low cross into Patrick Vieira, who slid in to score from 12 yards.
September 11, 2010
Arsenal v Bolton Wanderers
A move that started in the centre circle, exited it three times and then, back in the middle of the pitch for the fourth time, created a clinically taken goal was not just an exercise in playing to the ‘oles’ of the crowd. Arsenal’s fourth goal against Bolton involved eight players, both flanks of the pitch and 24 passes, the ball being manoeuvred between midfielders, attackers and full backs before Cesc Fabregas sprang Carlos Vela free. A deliberate, considered build-up had been finished with devastating speed as the Mexican made it 4-1 after 83 minutes.
UEFA Champions League
February 16, 2011
Arsenal v Barcelona
One of the most famous victories in Arsenal’s history was clinched with a typical Arsenal goal. With seven minutes remaining Laurent Koscielny intercepted the ball inside his own area and passed forward to Nicklas Bendtner. He fed Jack Wilshere, who supplied a first time pass to Cesc Fabregas, taking out four players in the process. Cesc’s inch-perfect early pass released Samir Nasri, who burst into the box from the right and cut the ball back for Andrey Arshavin to finish first time from the edge of the area.
February 22, 2014
Arsenal v Sunderland
Santi Cazorla was in possession in the centre circle and he sent the ball forward to Jack Wilshere in space. He ran at the defence before laying the ball off to Rosicky. Then he worked his way into the box via a series of one- touch passes, ending with Olivier Giroud touching the ball into his path and the Czech lifted the ball over Vito Mannone.
October 19, 2013
Arsenal v Norwich
Voted BBC Match Of The Day’s Goal of the Season for 2013/14, this goal broke the deadlock in a 4-1 win over Norwich. Santi Cazorla brought the ball forward on the left, and played a one-two with Jack Wilshere outside the area. Cazorla played the ball forward first time to Olivier Giroud, who flicked it with his first touch back into the path of Wilshere. The England man himself flicked it first time back to Giroud, and continued his run into the box. Giroud used the outside of his foot to return it to Wilshere, who slotted home right footed with a cool volley. The whole move took a matter of seconds.
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