Invincible Flame-haired Punk: Highbury Hero Freddie Ljungberg

Freddie Ljungberg
I’m setting the dial on the time machine to take us back to 1998, when a young 21 year old punk haired Swede announced his arrival in North London by coming off the bench at Highbury and within five minutes he cheekily lobbed the ball over Peter Schmeichel to score his first goal for The Arsenal. The latest Highbury Hero is none other than Freddie Ljungberg.

Freddie announces his arrival with a goal against Manchester United

Freddie was a real live wire. He had a great will to win. Freddie had plenty of pace with energy to burn. He gave everything for the team. His constant movement made him difficult to contain and his quick feet made him a very tricky customer for defenders to deal with.

Freddie powers away from a Newcastle United defender

Freddie powers away from a Newcastle United defender

But Freddie’s greatest asset was his ability to to make those intelligent perfectly timed runs which enabled him to score many important goals for The Arsenal. The way he used to link up with Dennis Bergkamp was almost telepathic. When Freddie made his run Dennis would invariably slide the ball through to him with absolute precision and Freddie was a pretty adept finisher as well.

The dynamic duo Freddie and Dennis

The dynamic duo Freddie and Dennis

This is what Patrick Vieira says about Freddie in his autobiography “He’s the sort of player who sometimes doesn’t touch the ball for five minutes but who can then turn a match with one touch of the ball, either because he creates the goal or scores it himself. He is a match-winner. He likes playing deep and, because he is highly intelligent and reads the game so well, he is very difficult to mark. He always has time for people and is very easy to get on with. I always enjoyed his company a lot”.

This is the view most defenders got of Freddie. His back as he went past them!

This is the view most defenders got of Freddie. His back as he went past them!

Arsene Wenger was asked by Amy Lawrence about the members of the Invincible team. He said this about Freddie “Another strong personality, very focussed to win. He came to see me the other day and I said to him I remember coming to see you when you lost with Sweden against Portugal in the European Championship. Two days later the guy at the hotel said he has not moved yet, he was so disappointed. He was an unbelievable fighter. Even in the Champions League Final against Barcelona he was immense. He could find resources even when he was dead, because of his fighting spirit”.

Fredrik Ljungberg was born 16th April 1977 in Vittsjo Sweden. He came from a middle class background, his father was a civil engineer and owned a construction and consultant business. Freddie joined local club Helmsted at just five years old. When he was in his teens he was playing in an group two years higher than his age and he made his debut for the first team at 17 years old.

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Get your replica wall clock here

Freddie did very well academically and went to university at 18. But had to give it up as it was too difficult to combine studying and playing football as well.

Arsenal had been keeping tabs on Freddie from when he was sixteen and after watching Freddie on TV run England’s defence ragged for Sweden Arsene decided to make a bid for him. Freddie said there were three clubs he was going to see before deciding where to go. When he did some research on Arsenal. He found they had a great history, a special history.

When he spoke to Arsene Wenger Freddie said Arsene conducted himself with grace and respect. Freddie said we talked about football, how we thought football should be played, and the culture he wanted to bring into the club. And that’s why he signed, because of Arsene’s attitude.

Freddie takes in some instructions from Arsene Wenger

Freddie takes in some instructions from Arsene Wenger

Freddie signed for Arsenal on the 15th September 1998 for £3 million, which turned out to be an absolute bargain. He made his debut on 20th September 1998, coming on as a substitute for Nicolas Anelka and within five minutes he got on the end of Stephen Hughes chip and lobbed the ball over Peter Schmeichel and into the net to give Arsenal a 3-0 win over Manchester United and make himself an instant hero at Highbury.

Arsene Wenger made the decision to play Freddie on the wing and Freddie didn’t enjoy the positional change at all. All his life he either played in central midfield or as a number 10. Arsene explained to Freddie that he’d get more freedom out wide and due to the physicality of the English game he didn’t want Freddie, who wasn’t built like Patrick Vieira or Emmanuel Petit, getting battered in central midfield. Freddie said he felt lost playing out there. He didn’t dream in a million years he could play as a winger snd he really didn’t enjoy it. In fact he thought about leaving and had meetings with his agent about it. But he said he liked Arsenal, liked Arsene and liked his team mates. So he made the decision to stop complaining and knuckle down and give it a real go.

That first season 1998-99 Freddie made 10 league appearances with 6 more as a substitute and the following season became a bit more influential making 22 league appearances with another 4 as substitute and scored 6 goals. Although he didn’t play against Galatasaray in the EUFA Cup Final. But after the departure of Marc Overmars to Barcelona Freddie really started to come into his own.

Freddie on the ball complete with red hair!

Freddie on the ball complete with red hair!

In 2000-01 Arsenal reached the FA Cup Final. The first one ever to be played at Cardiff and Freddie proved what a player he could be on the big stage. It was a cracking atmosphere and we absolutely battered Liverpool. We should had a couple of blatant penalties and Freddie hammered the ball high into the Liverpool net to give us the lead. But Liverpool and Michael Owen mugged us at the end with two late goals. Of the four FA Cup Finals we played at Cardiff that was the only one we lost and I can honestly say the 2001 Final was the best we played in all of them. I and many other Arsenal fans felt very hard done by that day on the train back to Paddington.

2001-02 was a wonderful season both for The Arsenal and Freddie. Anyone who saw us beat Juventus in the Champions League 3-1 at Highbury will never forgot the third goal Arsenal scored when Dennis Bergkamp’s magical feet teased the Juventus defenders before Freddie made his run bang on cue for Dennis to deliver the killer pass with immaculate timing and precision at just the right height and angle for Freddie to finish with aplomb.

Exquisite goal for The Arsenal by Freddie against Juventus

Robert Pires had been in sensational form as well that season playing the best football of his career. I remember at Anfield against Liverpool he turned Steven Gerrard inside out before sliding across a lovely ball for Freddie’s perfectly timed run to put Arsenal two goals up in a 2-1 victory for the Gunners.

Freddie scores at Anfield

Disaster struck in March when we lost Robert Pires for the rest of the season due to a cruciate ligament injury. Robert was never quite the same after that injury. He’d been fantastic that day scoring in a 3-0 FA Cup win against Newcastle United at Highbury. But Freddie came up trumps, picking up the baton to supply the fire power we’d lost through Robert’s injury. Freddie developed that almost telepathic understanding he had with Dennis Bergkamp, with Freddie scoring six goals in five League games to take us to the brink of the Title.

Again Freddie proved what a vital cog he was in that wonderful side and how he was the man for the big occasion, when he scored a superb second goal for Arsenal, as he shrugged off John Terry, to add to the equally impressive goal from “It’s only Ray Parlour” to win the FA Cup and secure the first leg of the Double with a 2-0 victory over Chelsea.

Freddie breaks Chelsea’s hearts in the 2002 FA Cup Final

Four days later it was off to Old Trafford the home of our bitter rivals the Champions Manchester United to try and complete the Double. There was no Dennis Bergkamp or Thierry Henry and United tried their best to kick us out the game. Freddie almost scored the winner as Fabian Barthez saved his shot and the ball went straight to Sylvain Wilford, who smacked home to winner to make Arsenal Champions and complete the Double. It was Freddie’s best season as an Arsenal player and he won the Barclaycard player of the season for 2001-02

Freddie celebrates after winning the Title and the Double at Old Trafford

Freddie celebrates after winning the Title and the Double at Old Trafford

In 2002-03 Arsenal retained the FA Cup beating Southampton 1-0 in the Final, with a goal by Robert Pires. In the Semi-Final against Sheffield United David Seaman pulled off an incredible save and Freddie scored the all important goal to get us back to Wembley.

Freddie played a big part in the incredible Invincible’s season. I remember playing Portsmouth away at Fratton Park in the FA Cup Quarter-Final and saw something I’d never seen before. Arsenal won the game 5-1 and Freddie got a brace that day. With the game won Arsene Wenger took off Freddie, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry and the Pompey fans gave them a standing ovation as they walked off. That just goes to show what a special team that Arsenal side was.

In 2004-05 The Arsenal extended their unbeaten run to a record 49 games and in the 50th game against Manchester United Mike Riley had the worst refereeing performance I’ve ever seen in my life. He let United get away with murder. The Neville brothers kicked the living daylights out of Jose Antonio Reyes. Both should have got their marching orders. Rio Ferdinand should have gone for bringing down Freddie when he was clean through on goal. Ruud Van Nistelrooy made a shocking challenge on Ashley Cole and should have been shown a straight red card and Wayne Rooney got a penalty for what was a blatant dive. But Arsenal got some revenge when they beat Manchester United in the first ever penalty shoot-out in the 2005 FA Cup Final. Freddie came on as a substitute and was one of the Arsenal scorers in the penalty shoot-out.

Arsenal triumph over Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup penalty shoot out

2005-06 was Arsenal’s last at Highbury after 93 years and Freddie came on as a substitute for the last Arsenal side to play there in the historic 4-2 win against Wigan. There was still one match to play that season our last competitive fixture before the move to the Emirates. The Champions League Final against Barcelona in Paris. Freddie played in his old midfield role for this game and worked tirelessly. Arsene Wenger called his performance “immense” as Arsenal battled against the odds with ten men for most of the match and came so close to pulling off a memorable victory. I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed as when we trudged out the stadium that night. I bumped into Mark Bright outside and he looked as devastated as the rest of us. When I mentioned to him the one-on-one Thierry Henry had with the keeper Brighty pulled a pained expression and just shock his head. We’d seen Thierry score from that position countless times and had he put that one away I’m convinced that would have killed Barcelona off.

The first season at the Emirates was Freddie’s last as an Arsenal player. He started in our first ever match at the new stadium a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa. But only managed 18 appearances in the League, as injuries were beginning to take their toll on Freddie. His last game for The Arsenal was a 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane against the old enemy Tottenham on 21st April 2007. By then Freddie had turned 30 and the side was very different now. Players like Eboue, Clichy, Diaby, Hleb, Adebayor and Rosicky all started alongside Freddie that day and after nine fantastic seasons at Arsenal Freddie’s days in a red and white shirt came to an end.

Freddie in claret and blue for West Ham United

Freddie in claret and blue for West Ham United

Freddie signed for West Ham United on 23rd July 2007 for the same £3 million fee we’d paid for him nine years previously. We’d had his best years at Highbury and West Ham never saw the Freddie we’d had due to his injury problems. Which mirrored John Radford’s move to West Ham back in 1976. After just one season West Ham and Freddie mutually agreed to terminate his contract and Freddie received £6 million for it.

Freddie in the green and white hoops of Celtic

Freddie in the green and white hoops of Celtic

The next stage of Freddie’s career was a couple of years playing in the MLS for Seattle Sounders FC and Chicago Fire. Freddie then had brief spells at Celtic in Scotland and Shimizu S-Pulse in Japan. Freddie announced his retirement on 24th August 2012. But came back in 2014 to play a handful of games for Mumbai City FC in the Indian Super League before finally hanging up his boots.

Freddie playing for Sweden

Freddie playing for Sweden

Freddie also had a distinguished international career with Sweden. He made his debut against the United States in Orlando on 24th January 1998. He went on to captain his country and played for them for 10 years. He played in four major tournaments for Sweden, won 75 caps and scored 14 goals.

He returned to Arsenal in an ambassadorial role in 2013, before accepting a job coaching the Arsenal under-15’s in July 2016. He left the club to become assistant manager at Wolfsburg, working under Andries Jonker in February 2017.

Freddie became famous not only as a footballer he was also a model and fashion icon. He had some eye catching hair styles and wore some pretty outlandish gear when he was at Arsenal.

A fine compilation of Freddie’s goals for The Arsenal

He played 328 times for The Arsenal scoring 72 goals. Freddie Ljungberg was a major star for Arsenal in some great teams and his place is secure in the club’s history as an Arsenal legend. It seems like only yesterday we were singing “We love you Freddie because you’ve got red hair. We love you Freddie because your everywhere. We love you Freddie your Arsenal through and through”

One more time let’s hear it for Freddie!

As always thanks for reading and there’ll be another Highbury Hero coming your way shortly.

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