How Freddie Ljungberg drove Arsenal to the double in 2001/02

In the spring of 2002, “We love you Freddie, because you’ve got red hair” (sung to the tune of ‘I Love You Baby’ by Frankie Valli) was belted out as lustily as any song before it at Highbury. Arsenal were closing in on the Premier League title and a place in the FA Cup final.

Arsenal’s impressive form in March had looked at risk of being curtailed by a season-ending injury to Robert Pires in the FA Cup replay win against Newcastle. The Frenchman had been Arsenal’s outstanding player and their driving force; no mean feat in a team featuring the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Sol Campbell.

Pires' cruciate ligament injury meant he would also miss the World Cup finals. Roger Lemerre, the France coach summed up Pires’ huge importance to the French national team: "Pires symbolises the values, and the qualities of the French team. And to be honest with you, I am finding it difficult trying to get over the news,” adding "I think it will also affect the whole of France." (France, the defending champions, would eventually be knocked out of the World Cup after the group stage, without scoring a goal.)

For Arsenal, the injury seemed equally devastating. Freddie Ljungberg was a different sort of player to Pires, not as creative maybe, but equally effective.

When Pires was injured, Arsenal were in the early stages of an incredible thirteen straight wins to close out the season. Ljungberg’s influence was crucial. The Swede scored six goals in the last seven matches of the season, having not scored since 13th January in a 1-1 draw against Liverpool. In four of those matches his goals were the all-important first strikes in tight contests, against Spurs, Ipswich, West Ham and Bolton. Ljungberg’s ability to arrive late into the box and finish with a cool-head, was reminiscent of Michael Thomas 13 years earlier.

Arsenal would have a chance to win the title at Old Trafford, the home of their bitter rivals. For three years - since Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal had won the double in his first full season in charge in 1997/98 - Manchester United had totally dominated English football, with three consecutive titles.

First though, the FA Cup final, which came early - brought forward due to the imminent World Cup finals. Arsenal had squeezed past Middlesbrough in a tight semi-final and now faced Chelsea - difficult opponents - but the Gunners were favourites to win the trophy they had missed out on in such disappointing fashion the year before, when they succumbed to two late goals from  Michael Owen, after Ljungberg had given them the lead.
Arsenal’s 2-0 triumph in the 2002 final is largely remembered for Ray Parlour’s spectacular long-range strike to give the Gunners the lead, but Ljungberg’s goal ten minutes later sealed the win and in it’s own way was just as impressive. The Swede took the ball from the half-way line and drove at the Chelsea defence, before curling a beautiful finish into the net from the edge of the area.

Ljungberg’s season wasn't finished. Just four days after their cup final  triumph at the Millennium Stadium, Arsenal travelled to Old Trafford.

Arsenal, without the injured Henry and Bergkamp, came away with a famous 1-0 win, despite United’s usual attempts to unsettle Wenger’s team. As the BBC reported: “Arsenal kept their composure in the face of a fierce early physical assault from United as Ferguson's side relinquished their crown in graceless fashion.”

While it was Wiltord who claimed the goal, Ljungberg played a crucial role, with another of those late runs. Ljungberg ’s shot was saved by Fabien Barthez, but the ball fell nicely for Sylvain Wiltord to finish expertly.

Ljunberg finished the season with 17 goals in all competitions, level with Sylvain Wiltord, and second only to Thierry Henry. The highest praise you could give him is that Arsenal did not, in the end, miss the magnificent Pires.

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