Kevin McCluskie with A Celtic State of Mind – Whatever Happened to… Freddie Ljungberg?

They Graced the Hoops… Freddie Ljungberg

He was an Arsenal Invincible who arrived at Celtic Park in December 2010 looking to re-ignite a fading career but left just 6 months later having made little impression on the Celtic first-team, leaving many to wonder if he had used Celtic for one last big pay-day.

For over a decade, Freddie Ljungberg was a mainstay of the Swedish national team and key component in Arsene Wenger’s irresistible Arsenal sides of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He also made time to fit in a modelling career with Calvin Klein, however, by the time of his all-too-brief spell in Paradise it was clear to see that the Swedish forward’s best days were a thing of the past.

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Halmstad Beginnings & Gunning for Glory

Ljungberg made his professional debut for Swedish Allsvenskan side Halmstad in October 1994 at the tender age of 17 having risen rapidly through the youth ranks at his local club.

During his three-and-a-half years with Halmstad, Ljungberg developed into an integral member of the first-team squad, winning the Allsvenken title in 1997 before making a career-defining switch to English Premiership outfit Arsenal during the 1998/99 season.

He made an instant impact for the Gunners, scoring a superb lob over Peter Schmeichel on his debut against Manchester United, and would go on to make over 300 appearances for the North London giants during the next 9 seasons.

Creative, with an eye for goal and a killer pass, along with the ability to play on either flank or as a second striker, Ljungberg was a perfect fit for the free-flowing and attack-minded sides that Arsene Wenger was famed for building during his glory days.

Alongside the likes of Pires and Henry, Bergkamp and Overmars, Ljungberg was part of one of English football’s most revered front lines.

The first of Ljungberg’s honours at Arsenal arrived in 1999 with the capture of the Charity Shield against old foes Manchester United, however, this was followed by defeats in the finals of the UEFA Cup (2000) and FA Cup (2001); Ljungberg made history in the latter final by becoming the first player to score an FA Cup goal outside of England – Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium was the venue while Wembley was undergoing reconstruction.

Ljungberg was not to be denied his moment, or rather, moments, in the sun with Arsenal and secured his place in Gunners folklore on two further occasions as a member of both the double-winning side of 2001/02 and the Invincibles of 2003/04.

Despite achieving domestic success with Arsenal, success on the European stage was to elude him. In 2006, Ljungberg played a key role in helping Arsenal to the final of the Champions League, only to be upstaged by another Swede by the name of Henrik Larsson. The magnificent 7, a second-half substitute, stole the show with two assists that secured a memorable victory for Barcelona.

Arsenal, and Ljungberg, failed to recover from that set-back and the following injury-disrupted season would be Ljungberg’s last with the Gunners before departing for city rivals West Ham United.

In total, Ljungberg won 6 trophies with Arsenal, the last of which coming in the 2005 FA Cup final against Manchester United, the side against whom he won his first Arsenal trophy some 6 years previously.

Injuries, Decline, U.S. Re-birth

Towards the end of his 9 years with Arsenal, Ljungberg was dogged by injuries that started to limit his effectiveness and time on the pitch.

A series of persistent hip, rib, and ankle injuries, combined with prolonged periods of migraines eventually saw Ljungberg fall down the pecking order behind a new breed of Arsenal forwards including Hleb, Rosicky, and Theo Walcott. In search of regular first-team football, Ljungberg made the switch to West Ham.

After a single, underwhelming season at the Boleyn Ground, Ljungberg and West Ham parted ways with a reported £6 million agreement brokered to terminate the Swede’s 4-year contract. At around the same time, Ljungberg called a halt to his International career with Sweden after representing his nation on 75 occasions and at 4 major tournaments.

With no club at the start of the 2008/09 European season, Ljungberg headed to the MLS to kick-start his career, initially signing for Seattle Sounders. Despite his previous high profile and success with Arsenal, Ljungberg’s move to Seattle was not well received universally. Iconic U.S. defender Alexi Lalas infamously slated the move stating that legendary Seattle rocker Eddie Vedder would make a bigger impact on the Sounders team.

However, by the end of his first season in the MLS, Ljungberg had proven most of his doubters wrong, putting in a series of impressive performances and ending the 2009 campaign with the U.S. Open Cup.

Throughout his time in the USA, Ljungberg faced constant speculation about his desire to return to European football. During the 2010 season he was traded to Chicago Fire before confirming his wish to quit the MLS at the end of the season.

Paradise Beckons

At the end of December 2010, after impressing in a short trial period, Freddie Ljungberg signed on in Paradise on a 6-month deal with the option of a further 12 months, and was given the famous number 7 jersey.

With Celtic in the running for the title in Neil Lennon’s first full season in charge, Ljungberg was seen as the experienced pro needed to help the Hoops edge over the line in first place.

A competent debut performance against Berwick Rangers in the Scottish Cup soon followed as the Swede looked to make his mark on the Celtic starting eleven. However, with fierce competition for a place in the team, Ljungberg would go on to make only one further start and 6 substitute appearances in the remainder of the season.

A signing, perhaps based on reputation and past success, Ljungberg failed to dislodge Maloney, Forrest, McCourt, and fellow winter signing Kris Commons from the wide berths; Ledley, Brown, Ki, and Kayal also stood firm in the central midfield roles denying Ljungberg the game time he craved to show his worth at Celtic Park.

Ultimately, season 2010/11 would see Celtic pipped at the post for the league title. The Scottish Cup campaign ended on a high with Motherwell defeated in the final to earn Neil Lennon his first managerial silverware, but Freddie Ljungberg, signed as the old head to guide a relatively young team to success, was conspicuous by his absence from the team that day.

He would not play again for Celtic, making the last of his 8 appearances from the bench at Rugby Park on the 20th April, 2011.

Life after Celtic

Ljungberg’s first port of call after leaving Celtic was Japan, and J-League side Shimizu S-Pulse. Like his spell at Celtic, Ljungberg would last only 6 months in Japan before having his contract ended by mutual termination in February 2012.

Despite receiving offers from clubs in Australia and South Africa to continue his playing days, Ljungberg made the decision in August 2012 to call it a day on his 18-year career; injuries and wear and tear finally taking their toll.

He took up an offer to return to Arsenal in an Ambassadorial role in 2013 before briefly coming out of retirement in 2014 when he became a marquee signing for Mumbai City in the newly-established Indian Super League. His return would last just 4 games before retiring for a second and final time.

After two-and-a-half years out of the game, Ljungberg was appointed as assistant manager to Andries Jonker at Wolfsburg. In something of a recurring theme to the latter days of his playing career, Ljungberg’s first venture into the world of coaching would last only 6 months before he was sacked, along with Jonker and the rest of his backroom staff.

He returned to his spiritual football home at Arsenal in 2018 to work with the U-23s before being promoted to work with Unai Emery and the first-team a year later. The Swede was placed in temporary charge of the first-team after Emery’s sacking during the 2019/20 season, guiding the club to one win during his 6 games at the helm. With the appointment of Mikel Arteta as permanent manager in December 2019, Ljungberg resumed his previous role as assistant manager.

Without question, Freddie Ljungberg was one of the most exciting players in the Premiership during his prime. Sadly, as the persistent injuries that plagued his careers took hold, the Swede’s fall from grace and favour was quick and he was never quite able to stay fit for long enough to regain the glory days.

Celtic fans certainly didn’t see the best of a player who, stylistically, fitted the mould of a forward who liked to play the Celtic way.

Kevin McCluskie

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