'A varied talent': can Martin Ødegaard make up for lost time at Arsenal?

The last time anyone saw Martin Ødegaard in a Real Madrid shirt he was running up the pitch at the Rosaleda, alone. Madrid had just lost the semi-final of the Spanish Super Cup to Athletic Bilbao, but even as the minutes had slipped away and the final did too, as they chased a lifeline, desperately in need of creativity, Zinedine Zidane didn’t call for the Norwegian. Ødegaard didn’t even warm up, not setting foot on the grass until full-time when he went out and trained on his own.

It had become a recurring theme. In December and January, he played 77 minutes at Shakhtar, five minutes against Celta, and that was it. When, four days later, the squad was named for the visit to Second Division B Alcoyano in the Copa del Rey, a tie which Madrid were to lose, Ødegaard wasn’t in it. This time it was his choice. He had told Madrid he wanted to leave, to go somewhere he will actually play.

San Sebastián, say. Or, as it turns out, London. On Wednesday Arsenal confirmed Ødegaard’s arrival on loan until the end of the season. His international manager, Ståle Solbakken, says: “Arsenal’s play could fit him well: I like the style Mikel Arteta is trying to impose.”

Playing at all is a start. Before that semi-final, Luka Modric had been asked about Ødegaard. “The last time I spoke to him, I told him I like him as a player and a person,” the Croatian said. “He has to continue fighting for his place in this team, to make the difference when he plays, prove he deserves to be here. My advice would be: work and fight for your place.” Modric, though, is part of the reason Ødegaard wasn’t playing and he didn’t take heed. Instead of fight, there was flight, a search for opportunity elsewhere, a space to grow.

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“It is easy to say it’s my fault,” Zidane had said and plenty have said just that, not least because Ødegaard is not the only young footballer given few opportunities at Madrid. But, the manager continued, the players have to earn them.

Zidane may note that Ødegaard was handed starts in the first two games of the season and there had even been a shift in formation to accommodate him, although he was taken off at half-time in the second. He may point out that Ødegaard returned to the team after recovering from his first calf injury. What he did say, publicly, was that the absences were “circumstantial”, insisting: “He’ll succeed here.” But he won’t, not yet. He leaves for six months – his fourth loan since joining Madrid six years ago aged 16.

Martin Ødegaard after signing for Real Madrid aged 16 in January 2015.
Martin Ødegaard after signing for Real Madrid aged 16 in January 2015. Photograph: Denis Doyle/Getty Images

In 2019 Ødegaard began a two-year stay at Real Sociedad but Madrid called him back a year early following their Champions League exit against Manchester City last August. Still 21, it wasn’t what he had planned or wanted, and wasn’t what Real Sociedad expected. “Martin is a talented player who can give the team a lot,” Zidane said. “He has got better every year. He has to adapt and go bit by bit but I have no doubt about what a great player he is.”

Ødegaard’s optimism was cautious. Since rejoining Madrid, he has had a calf injury and coronavirus, returning from that enforced absence only to suffer a second injury. There has been bad luck, issues few foresaw. And Modric, at 35, has been better than anyone expected, every bit the man who won the Ballon d’Or. And yet there is still a feeling of lost opportunity and wasted time with Ødegaard, arrested development; a suspicion that there wasn’t really a plan or place for him; a feeling, above all, of inevitability.

A year ago, Jorge Valdano was among many predicting this, writing: “When I say another year at Real Sociedad wouldn’t be a bad thing, I’m not saying he lacks maturity, but right now Madrid’s squad is too rich in resources. The context offers no guarantees for him to win a place in the team. When the squad, as a consequence of planning and age, starts to shed the prestigious competitors it has now, then Ødegaard can arrive with the status a crack like him deserves. At his age, better to play 50 games at Real Sociedad than to sit and wait at Madrid.”

Martin Odegaard (L) tries to get the better of a clutch of Levante players while with Real Sociedad last season.
Martin Ødegaard (L) tries to get the better of a clutch of Levante players while with Real Sociedad last season. Photograph: Juan Herrero/EPA

Valdano’s point has been made. Ødegaard leaves having played only 367 minutes. He has scored no goals and provided no assists, not numbers to excite Arsenal supporters, nor reason for those in Madrid to really lament his leaving – so long as it’s temporary. But if they want to know how good he is, beyond trust in Mikel Arteta’s judgment, they need only look at the team he leaves, the immense quality of the players before him, and the other team that wanted to sign him – and at the very fact that they had to.

As soon as Ødegaard had told Madrid of his desire to go, he looked north towards Real Sociedad, the place that had been home. They wanted him, not just because of their fondness for him but the footballer they know he is. And no one knows “Martinxo” like they do.

Playing just to the right of the midfield or off the front, his season with Real Sociedad had been a revelation. Until lockdown, it would be no exaggeration to suggest he might have been the best player in Spain, full of energy and invention, the ball describing implausible angles and discovering spaces no one saw, passing through gaps that weren’t there. “He covers a lot of ground, understands the game, can clarify everything with threaded pass, dribble and shoot from mid-range,” Valdano wrote. “A varied, practical, attractive talent.”

Martin Ødegaard and Alexander Isak celebrate after reaching the 2020 Copa del Rey final.
Martin Ødegaard and Alexander Isak celebrate after reaching the 2020 Copa del Rey final. Photograph: Vincent West/Reuters

Looked after, integrated into a young, exciting and mostly local team with a powerful collective identity, he said he felt like he was “another youth product”, as if he had been there his whole life. He adapted, listened, followed but also took responsibility to lead. Thrived on it, in fact. They learned from him as he did from them. There were seven goals and nine assists as la Real reached the Copa del Rey final, beating Madrid 4-3 at the Bernabéu en route with the opening goal from Ødegaard, and also reached the Europa League after finishing sixth.

It had been some season; the problem was that it was just one. Ødegaard had been looking forward to a second and told his teammates he was staying, but then Zidane called.

There was a reason for that. Well, two: first, Madrid’s needs, allied to a lack of money to buy with, and second, his extraordinary performances. This move would improve them; it would also damage Real Sociedad, his level reflected in how they reacted, the public sadness startling. “When they announced he was leaving, it left us reeling,” admitted winger Portu. “We cried over his departure,” said Miguel-Ángel Moyá. Reflected, too, in the quality of the replacement they chased: David Silva.

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“Martin gave us so much on the pitch with his goals, his assists, his presence,” Nacho Monreal said. “We were left a bit ‘orphaned’ when he went but the club dealt with that very, very well, and above all very fast. In less than two days we had gone from losing Ødegaard to signing Silva.”

Even having Silva didn’t mean not wanting Martinxo back, though. When the opportunities the Norwegian had been given in San Sebastián were not forthcoming in Madrid and Ødegaard admitted he wanted out, Real Sociedad immediately invited him back. He would have gone in a heartbeat but it wasn’t to be. “We would have grown with him,” the manager, Imanol Alguacil, said sadly. Maybe Arsenal will instead. And maybe so will he.


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