LONDON — It’s not long after 10:00 on Friday morning. The Arsenal training ground in London Colney, just off the M25, is basking in the sun. The countless pitches of the complex are still, quiet.
Inside the main building, Freddie Ljungberg is facing his players for the first time. An hour earlier, he was still one of Unai Emery’s assistants. Now, he is in charge of the Gunners first team following Emery’s dismissal as manager. He has just accepted the caretaker job. He doesn’t know how long he will be in the role, and he knows that this is quite the jump forward, but he feels ready.
This is his first speech to his team. He knows how important it is. His words need to have an impact. He has to inspire them. He tells his players that he wants them happy again so they can enjoy their football. He insists on going back to play the Arsenal way, with flair, movement and energy. He wants energy, spirit and belief. He also mentions the fans and the importance of getting their support, how he wants to put smiles back on their faces.
It’s a strong speech, and the players are receptive, focused. They welcome the change of dynamic and message. Ljungberg is popular with the players. They like his energy, his ideas, his personality: full of life. In many ways, he is the opposite of Emery. He has also coached the U23, so he knows all the youngsters.
This is the first day of Ljungberg’s new life, a life as Arsenal manager.
He has his UEFA Pro Licence, which means he is eligible to coach Premier League and UEFA matches. At the moment, the club is not in contact with anyone else. The hope is that Ljungberg does well and can steward the club through the end of the season, when it should be easier for Arsenal to choose a permanent manager for a long-term project. Halfway through the campaign, it’s never easy to get someone, especially if they are already in a job.
Ljungberg’s first training session is a light one, because Arsenal played on Thursday night against Eintracht Frankfurt. Those who started against the German side are on a warm-down, the rest practise properly. On Saturday, however, he will have his full squad available to prepare tactically for the Norwich game. Then, they will get to Norfolk by coach.
After lunch, it is time for him to think about his coaching staff. Who will come in? Will Steve Bould return to the first team after a short exile with the U23s? Who will be the goalkeeper coach? There is a lot to do, as well as analysing Norwich performances and work on the videos to present the players on Saturday. It has been a crazy morning. It has all happened so fast.
Emery left a while ago. He cleared out his desk and his office. His staff did the same.
He arrived at the training ground with his staff early, as usual, to take the training session at 11:00. He was met by technical director Edu and head of football Raul Sanllehi. They informed Emery & Co. of their decision to part ways. There was no tension in the meeting; it was cordial, amicable and Emery and his assistants understood the decision. There was maybe even a sense of relief. The season has been difficult, almost from day one. Emery might have felt that he ran out of ideas and options.
He is now a memory. His 18 months in charge makes his tenure the fourth shortest in the club’s 133-year history.
His dismissal was only a matter of time. He knew it when he left his house in Hadley Wood, an upmarket suburb in North London, on Friday morning to make the 15-minute drive to the training ground. On Thursday night, his team lost 2-1 to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League in a half-empty Emirates Stadium. The Spaniard knew the pressure on him had intensified. He heard the boos, he dodged the questions from the media about his future, but he knew that the chop was getting closer. The club have supported him for as long as they could. Since the start of the season, the board has backed him and given him opportunities to turn things around.
As a club, Arsenal don’t sack managers. The club believe in stability and positivity. Edu, Sanllehi, managing director Vinai Venkatesham and the owners, the Kroenke family, were willing to keep Emery. Last week, Sanllehi and Venkatesham travelled to Los Angeles to meet Josh and Stan Kroenke. They regularly chat about the club, in person, over the phone or on their WhatsApp group. But this time, the purpose was solely to discuss Emery’s future. They decided not to sack him then, agreeing to give him a bit more time.
Indeed, before the game against Southampton on Nov. 23, the manager was told that the club still believed in him. But things got worse in the past four days. On that Saturday, the last-minute draw against Saints was another poor performance, and the loss to Frankfurt sealed his fate.
Late after Thursday’s game, as the rain was pouring down on North London, the decision was taken. Emery’s position was untenable. He had to go. For the board, things had gone too poorly and the situation was too toxic. There was no way back.
The players were due in at 10:00 a.m. for training on Friday. On Thursday night, they believed that Emery would still be in charge for the Norwich game on Sunday. Then, maybe, it would be the end if they suffered another bad game. As soon as they arrived at the training ground, though, they knew something was up.
Emery’s relationship with many in the dressing room was complicated this season. Some of the players didn’t understand some of his decisions. When Arsenal were 2-1 down to Frankfurt with just 15 minutes to go, Emery brought on defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira while three attacking players — Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe and Reiss Nelson — were sat on the bench. Emery’s choices have baffled them all season. The constant tweaking, changing and tinkering lost them. The lack of clear communication and instructions was felt heavily by the squad. There was a feeling among them that Emery had lost his way.
In the same way, the former manager’s man-management was poor all season, not just in the cases of Mesut Ozil and Granit Xhaka. There was not much of a relationship left between the players and the manager, and the gap was too big to be bridged. The players respected him, but they had had enough. He had to go.
It’s a new chapter now starting at Arsenal. Another one. They desperately need this one to go better.