Weekend Previews

On Martin Ødegaard’s Move to Arsenal

Out of the blue…

Earlier this week, Arsenal announced the signing of 22 year old Norwegian dynamo Martin Ødegaard. The player joins on a six-month loan from Real Madrid without any option or obligation to purchase, having turned down the opportunity to rejoin Real Sociedad on a similar six month loan deal. He was specifically drawn to the club after a conversation he had with manager Mikel Arteta, who sold him on the club and what they can offer his development.

It is a very interesting move, mainly because it seemed to come out of the blue. The story seemed to progress from start to finish within a matter of days, going from Ødegaard wants to leave to a return to Real Sociedad to Arsenal has entered the race to Ødegaard has signed for Arsenal in a blink of an eye. It does make sense, and does answer some questions while posing others, and I will try to break it all down here.

Now, you may have completely forgotten about Martin Ødegaard, and that is understandable. The Norwegian’s career has not exactly been smooth sailing since his breakout season with Strømsgodset and his move to Real Madrid when he was only 16 years old. He was not able to set the world ablaze in Madrid as a teenager, so he was sent out on loan, with many believing he was just the next name on the list of football wunderkinds that could not live up to the hype.

He joined Heerenveen on loan in 2017 and quietly began his development journey. He was at Heerenveen for 18 months, developing into a consistent creative midfielder and becoming a regular starting player in a matter of months. At the end of the 2017-18 season, he returned to Real Madrid to be sent out on loan again, returning to the Netherlands and joining Vitesse for the 2018-19 season. Outside of the spotlight, Ødegaard quietly became a star in Arnhem, amassing 11 goals and 12 assists in all competitions and guiding Vitesse to a fifth place finish. He would once again return to Real Madrid, but with a few clubs vying for his signature. Real Madrid did not yet see the true Ødegaard, but many other clubs saw potential in the youngster.

Ødegaard went on loan once again ahead of the 2019-20 season, joining Spanish side Real Sociedad. The loan agreement was supposed to last two years, but Real Madrid and Real Sociedad had a sort of “gentlemen’s agreement” that allowed Los Blancos to recall the Norwegian after one season. It was here in the Basque Country that the world saw the real Martin Ødegaard. While fitness issues plagued him in the second half of the season, he was arguably one of the best players in the league in the first half of the season, shining at the center of the most exciting attacking team in the league. His seven goals and nine assists in all competitions helped guide La Real to the Europa League places and the final of the Copa del Rey. He even scored against his parent club in Real Sociedad’s 4-3 win over Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinal. For the first time, Martin Ødegaard was on the big stage and showing his talent. The world saw the player who burst onto the scene in Norway at 16, the player we all thought he could be. Ødegaard was a star, and he was happy to be a part of a La Real team that, like Ødegaard himself, seemed to lack any limits to their potential.

Facing a summer transfer window where they could not make any signings and looking at a team that was no closer to Champions League glory than they were the day Cristiano Ronaldo left, Zinedine Zidane demanded the club recall Ødegaard. Real Madrid needed something new, and the chance to bring in one of the best players of last season seemed too good to turn down. Real Sociedad had no choice, and Ødegaard could not stop it. You could see in Ødegaard’s interviews after returning that he did not seem too thrilled about coming back to Madrid, almost as if he knew what was going to happen next. And here we are; six months later, Ødegaard demanded to leave after only starting three times this season and playing a grand total of 234 league minutes. He had his chances earlier in the season, but after an injury and a positive COVID test, it seemed the team moved on without him. Arsenal came calling, and that was that.

Ok, now you are caught up. So what kind of player are Arsenal getting? Well, a very good one, to say the least.

Martin Ødegaard is a creative midfielder by trade, a player whose best attributes are his movement on and off the ball, as well as his vision and ability to pick out a pass, often ones more daring and harder to see than the more obvious and simple pass. He has been deployed as a right winger in the past, and succeeded there at Vitesse. However, he really found his footing playing as a number 10 for Real Sociedad and being given the freedom of the attacking third, where he often drifted to the right in order to receive the ball and turn inside on his stronger left foot to pass or shoot. It is in this position where his ability to read the game and pick out decisive, chance-creating passes really flourishes. La Real‘s other two midfielders, Igor Zubeldia and Mikel Merino, took care of the defense and did the hard work in midfield that allowed Ødegaard to focus more on the attack. He is a player that will remind Arsenal fans of Mesut Özil, and it is ironic that the Norwegian comes in within a week and a half of the German leaving North London.

I imagine Arsenal will try Ødegaard through the middle and on the right, but I do not think Ødegaard can succeed as a winger in the Premier League, where his lack of pace and physicality may lead him to lose out to stronger fullbacks and take away some of his best traits as a creative midfielder. He could succeed in this position if utilized in a similar manner to James Rodríguez in Everton’s team. James starts on the right but is given the freedom to cut inside onto his stronger left foot, and he has the space to do so playing in Everton’s 4-3-3, which lacks an out-and-out number 10. In Mikel Arteta’s 4-2-3-1, there is no room for this action, and Arteta has wanted a more traditional winger in that wide right position.

The natural place to play Ødegaard is in the number 10 role directly behind the striker. The midfield double pivot of Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka shares many of the same characteristics of the Sociedad double pivot of Merino and Zubeldia, so they should allow Ødegaard more freedom in attack as he had for La Real. Arsenal’s best front three at this point, likely Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, and Bukayo Saka, seems to relate well to the front three that Ødegaard played behind at Real Sociedad. There is a target man striker (Lacazette/Alex Isak), a direct and goalscoring winger (Aubameyang/Cristian Portu), and a creative winger (Saka/Mikel Oyarzabal). Obviously there are talent differences (Aubameyang is better than Portu, Oyarzabal and Isak are better than Saka and Lacazette), but the system and personnel seem to fit well with Ødegaard, and it should be a fairly smooth transition.

This leads to a very important question, one that seemed to be tied to this move: what happens with Emile Smith Rowe? Smith Rowe has been the revelation of the season for Arsenal, with the 20 year old Hale End Academy graduate stepping into the Arsenal first team and shining as the primary creative midfielder. He is the Arsenal kid, a player that the club seem invested in, so it does feel weird that Arteta would make a move like this to bring in another first team player that plays Smith Rowe’s position. It does make sense when it comes to a need for depth, as it is painfully clear that Arsenal are a completely different, and much worse, team when Smith Rowe does not play. With Arsenal’s Europa League campaign restarting soon, they will likely need a player to rotate with Smith Rowe and keep the team performing at a high level attacking-wise as their fixture list becomes more and more crowded. Ødegaard can step into the same role and same position without a single hiccup or issue, and with Özil gone and Willian continuing to be awful, the Englishman and Norwegian are likely Arsenal’s two best creative players.

There might be a playing time issue, though. How much does Ødegaard play compared to Smith Rowe? Does Ødegaard come straight into the team or does he have to earn the role? How much priority does Arsenal put in allowing Smith Rowe to play for his development? Will the media start saying dumb things if Ødegaard does not play and star immediately? Well, yes, that is obvious. But still, it is not exactly clear how this all comes together. I do not think Smith Rowe and Ødegaard should play in the same team, and rotating them as 10s is likely the best way to get the most out of their talents, but it does leave some questions and could lead to a few issues. This is not another Denis Suárez, I cannot emphasize that enough. But with Smith Rowe’s emergence, there are a few questions that I still have about how Arsenal prioritize the players. Smith Rowe is the only one that is fully an Arsenal player, so prioritizing the development of a player that is on your books seems to be a logical decision, but the discussion becomes very interesting in the summer, should Arsenal negotiate a permanent transfer for the Norwegian. It is something to look out for moving forward.

A quick chat about the Real Madrid perspective of this move, as this is yet another example of a problem that is beginning to become serious for Los Blancos. When Zinedine Zidane returned as manager in 2019, he said he wanted to make some changes. The generation that Zidane coached to several Champions League titles was aging out, and he likely wanted to bring in the new generation of the club. He inherited a team with quite a bit of young talent. Vinicius, Álvaro Odriozola, Mateo Kovačić, Andriy Lunin, Brahim Diaz, Theo Hernández, Marcos Llorente, Federico Valverde, and Dani Ceballos were among the names already there upon his return. They then signed Luka Jović, Éder Militão, Ferland Mendy, Rodrygo, and Takefusa Kubo.

Now, how many of them have seen even a sniff of consistent first-team time? How many of them are still there?

Ferland Mendy is really the only one that has broken into the first team. Mendy and Thibaut Courtois are the only consistent first team players in this Real Madrid team that were not in Kyiv to win the Champions League back in 2018. Those changes Zidane talked about have not come. Since the Frenchman’s return, they have sold Kovačić, Llorente, Hernández, Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Reguilón, and Óscar Rodríguez, while loaning Ødegaard, Kubo, Jović, Ceballos, Brahim, Lunin, and Odriozola.

Is there any plan to incorporate those younger players when they return from loan? Who knows, because the young players currently in the team have not exactly found consistent playing time. Federico Valverde, who was the breakout star of last season for Real Madrid, has seen his role greatly diminished this season. Vinicius has also seen his role diminished in the team, while Rodrygo, Ødegaard, Militão, Mariano, Jović, Odriozola, and Lunin have all played 450 minutes or less in the league this season. Should these young players believe that they have a role in this team? They have seen Kovačić, Llorente, Theo, and Hakimi all leave to get much more playing time elsewhere, consequentially becoming much better in the process. If Real Madrid’s recruitment policy is to bring in the next generation, why should these young players have to wait for whenever the current generation decides to stop being in vogue?

Conversely, why should Zidane not play his best possible team? This is Real Madrid, after all, they need to be winning things consistently. Does Valverde deserve to play ahead of Luka Modrić right now? Probably not. Did Jović deserve to play over Karim Benzema? Absolutely not. Does Militão deserve to play over Sergio Ramos or Raphaël Varane? Again, absolutely not. The club might want to usher out the previous generation and bring in the new talent, but as long as the pressure is on Zidane to win consistently, then he is going to play the better players and the players that he trusts, as he should. It is not Zidane’s job to usher in young players, it is his job to try and win the league every season, which is the expectation for Real Madrid every year. Ødegaard is obviously talented, but as there is no number ten in Zidane’s system, was Zidane supposed to alter his entire system to fit the Norwegian in? If it hurts the team, then no, he should not have to do it.

This is the issue Real Madrid are in. They are stuck in the dichotomy of contending and rebuilding. They are in the weird gray area between old and new. They are still too good and the expectations are still too high for them to rebuild, but the incredible talent that they could potentially rebuild around is going to waste and either stunting their careers or leaving the club to succeed elsewhere. There is so much more to say in this regard, but that might take too much time, maybe for another article.

In the case of Ødegaard specifically, I really think he is going to push to leave Real Madrid permanently if he succeeds at Arsenal and Zidane still does not want him. The persistent transfer rumors linking Los Blancos with Houssem Aouar and Eduardo Camavinga just puts more obstacles between the Norwegian and playing for Real Madrid, so I would not be surprised if he does everything in his power to not return to Madrid this summer. Does he stay at Arsenal? I have no idea, as it depends on what happens over the next six months, but I think it is very possible that we have seen the last of Ødegaard as a Madridista.

Well, here you go, Arsenal fans. You signed one of football’s wunderkind talents. Could he be crucial in helping your team make Europe next year? Are Arsenal Europa League contenders now? Is this move a stroke of genius from Arteta or forming a conflict with Emile Smith Rowe for no reason? It will be exciting to find out.

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