This article is part of Football FanCast’s The Chalkboard series, which provides a tactical insight into teams, players, managers, potential signings and more…
Having barely had any time to prepare for Sunday’s Premier League clash against Norwich, Freddie Ljungberg would no doubt have been searching for ways to try and make an early imprint on his Arsenal side.
The Gunners’ interim head coach was thrown into the job after the sacking of Unai Emery last Friday, and the Swede had very little in terms of training sessions to coach the way he would have wanted. Instead, the real impact he knew he would have, was with his team selection.
And having been in charge of the U23s last season, it was perhaps therefore no surprise that Ljungberg went with Joe Willock in his first-ever line-up. But the England youth international’s positioning was certainly intriguing. Despite also going with Mesut Ozil, the Arsenal legend opted for the academy prospect to start in the all-important number ten role, instead shunting the Germany World Cup winner to playing out wide.
It was clear from the first whistle that this was designed to help with the north London side’s ability to win back the ball high up the pitch – much like Unai Emery felt compelled to do with Lucas Torreira. But Willock’s greater comfort in playing the position from his time in the academy teams, and his naturally more athletic game suited the Gunners down to a tee.
Whilst Ozil came off the flank to occupy more central spaces, the 20-year-old looked to make lung-bursting runs into the channels to stretch the Canaries defence, and caused more problems with his propensity to go in behind the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
One such instance in the first-half saw Willock charge into the number nine role, before flicking it on to Lacazette and almost eventually leading to a goal. As per Sofascore, he won five of his seven ground duels, and recorded just 39 touches. Out of those who started the game for Arsenal, only Bernd Leno saw the ball on fewer occasions (38). It is clear that Ljungberg sees the traditional play-maker role as something more than just pulling the strings.
If they can help out the team defensively with their work rate in winning the ball back quicker, and creating more spaces for more ‘talented’ teammates by running in behind, then they can offer a greater balance to the side. And Willock’s first performance under Ljungberg really shows why he could be the Gunners’ surprise key man over the weeks to come.
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