Martin Odegaard’s loan move to Arsenal from Real Madrid this week has captured the imagination of Gunners fans and frustrated followers of the Spanish side in equal measure.
Odegaard, in the short term at least, has been snapped up by the North London club as a replacement for Mesut Ozil after the estranged German international joined Fenerbahce. Out with the Ö, in with the Ø.
The 22-year-old Norwegian said Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was key to his decision to swap Madrid for London.
At this stage of his career, he needs to feel valued by his coach and at Real Madrid, that was missing.
Pursued by many of Europe’s top teams after breaking through as a teenager at Stromsgodset in his homeland, Odegaard signed for Real Madrid in January 2015.
At his unveiling, Madrid legend Emilio Butrgueno said he would alternate training sessions between the club’s youth side Castilla and the first team.
Zinedine Zidane was Castilla’s coach at the time, with Carlo Ancelotti in charge of the senior side.
Odegaard made his Real Madrid debut on the final day of the 2014-15 season, replacing Cristiano Ronaldo from the bench in a 7-3 win over Getafe at the Santiago Bernabeu. It was Ancelotti’s last match in charge, but sending on the young Norwegian was interpreted by many as an order from higher up.
The midfielder initially stayed at Castilla for the 2016-17 campaign, but was sent on loan to SC Heerenveen in the Netherlands for a season and a half. Then to Vitesse for another year and last term, to Real Sociedad.
Back in La Liga and happy with life in San Sebastian, Odegaard played the finest football of his career to date and was keen to extend his stay at Real Sociedad to a second season.
Instrumental in the Basques’ run to the Copa del Rey final against Athletic (which has yet to be played due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the desire to schedule the match when fans can attend) and a sixth-placed finish in La Liga, Odegaard spoke glowingly of life in San Sebastian and his desire to play in Europe for Real Sociedad.
But the pandemic brought about a rethink at his parent club.
Real Madrid and Real Sociedad had verbally agreed a two-year loan, but La Liga rules allow only one year to be signed. And with money tight at the Bernabeu due to Covid-19, Zidane asked for the player to be brought back last summer.
The move made sense. Madrid had an agreement in place to sign Donny van de Beek from Ajax, but opted to recall Odegaard for free instead after the Norwegian’s impressive season in San Sebastian.
Los Blancos had been keen to bring in a player who could compete with and potentially succeed Luka Modric, who turned 35 in September.
But this season has seen the Croatian back to his brilliant best and opportunities have been few and far between for Odegaard.
The 22-year-old racked up 36 appearances in 2019-20, with seven goals and nine assists. But back at Real Madrid, he has played only 367 minutes in a total of nine games this term — and just five since starting in the 2-0 loss to Shakhtar Donetsk on December 1.
Zidane knows Odegaard well, but the pair’s relationship has been described as strained and the Norwegian appears to be the latest victim of the Frenchman’s insistence on sticking with his old guard.
Sergio Reguilon, Marcos Llorente, and Achraf Hakimi have all left Real in recent times and Odegaard is the latest young talent to see his path to the first team blocked by his coach.
Dani Ceballos, already at Arsenal, is another example.
Odegaard can play across the midfield, as a wide forward or as a playmaker. With the right guidance and coaching, he has a lot to offer and Arsenal could be the ideal place for him to showcase his skills.
“You need minutes,” said Odegaard’s friend and international team-mate Erling Haaland this week. “All they have to do is put him in the line-up and let him play.
“We know how good Odegaard can be. When he gains confidence with the ball, you know incredible things can happen.”
Meanwhile, former Madrid forward, coach, and director general Jorge Valdano has hit out at the Norwegian for giving up too soon on this season at Real Madrid.
“He has lacked patience,” the Argentine said. “A Madrid player should have more capacity to suffer. He shouldn’t give in so soon, especially when he is competing with two great players like [Toni] Kroos and Modric.”
It is not the first time Odegaard has been accused of wanting too much, too soon. But having patiently worked his way back into the club’s plans over a period of five years, he now has to prove his point all over again at Arsenal.
The truth is that he has been mismanaged on his return to Madrid and staying — as originally planned — for that second season in San Sebastian would probably have been the best path for his development.
If he can reproduce the form he showed in the first half of last season, when he lit up La Liga with his superb vision and defence-splitting passes and was hailed as the league’s best player before he was beset with tendonitis problems after the restart in June, Odegaard will be a very exciting acquisition indeed for the Gunners.
And as Modric and Kroos tire in the latter part of the campaign, Madrid may yet be left to regret his hasty exit this winter. Their loss could be Arsenal’s gain.