The very modern Martin Odegaard has unlocked football’s door at Arsenal after losing the key

John Nicholson
Arsenal's Martin Odegaard

Martin Odegaard is a very modern player who was tipped for immense things at a precocious age but is finally fulfilling that huge promise at Arsenal.

 

Who’s this then?
Martin Ødegaard is a 24-year-old, 5ft 10ins Arsenal midfielder. Born in Drammen, Norway, he is one of the main stars of the current table-topping Gunners.

A young Martin got his start at local sports club Drammen Strong, where his dad, also a footballer, coached him, even going so far as to put money into the club so it could have a good artificial pitch instead of playing on gravel. The club later got about £25,000 when Martin was bought by Real Madrid.

When he was 11, he joined Strømsgodset and played with kids a couple of years older than him, but held his own well and garnered praise from the coaches for his composure and positioning. He was played as a left-back for most of that time but had a licence to play in more forward positions.

His vision in finding passes and spaces other kids couldn’t was noted as he moved into his teens. Even aged 12 he was standing out when playing against 15 year olds. He made short training visits to Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Clearly, he was a precocious and prodigious talent. So much so that he made his first-team debut for Strømsgodset aged just 15 years and 118 days.

So impressive was his form that there was a clamour to get him straight into the national side despite the fact he wasn’t even 16. As one of the best 15 year olds in Europe he was invited to train with the Liverpool first team and visited the Arsenal training ground too. In 2014 he scored five goals and made seven assists.

With Europe’s elite clubs all sniffing around this wonderkid, Real Madrid came up with about €4million, rising to €8m if certain targets were met and bought him after he’d trained with them.

They promptly put the 16-year-old in the reserve team, coached by Zinedine Zidane. It was a bit of an up and down period. He made his first-team debut at just 16 years and 157 days old but couldn’t secure a regular place. He did quite well in the reserves in 2015-2016 with seven assists and a goal in 34 games but in 2017 he was sent out on loan to Heerenveen.

This was a period when Martin really just got experience of playing regularly in a first team. At Heerenveen he made 43 appearances, scored three times and made five assists. The next season he was on loan at Vitesse Arnhem. The stats show this was where he began to fulfil his young promise. In 39 appearances he scored 11 goals and made 13 and was voted Player Of The Year.

For 2019-20 he was back in Spain at Real Sociedad for 36 games, seven goals and nine assists. Put together, these two seasons saw him make 22 goals and score 18 across 75 games. Real Madrid recalled him but only gave him a handful of games and he didn’t contribute enough for them so they loaned him to Arsenal for 20 games. His two goals and two assists impressed enough for the Gunners – he was voted Player Of The Month for March –  to buy his contract for €35m, which was a lot of money for a player unproven at the highest level.

In 2021-22 his form was still patchy with seven goals and four assists in 36 Premier League appearances. However, this season has been a different story altogether. After playing for seven different clubs aged just 23, he has finally settled into a groove and he’s blossomed under Mikel Arteta, probably three or four years later than was initially imagined when he was signed by Real Madrid. Eight goals and six assists in 18 games is decent but doesn’t tell the whole story of how he has helped drive the club to the top of the league through his command of the ball in the middle and final third.

 

Why the love?
All fans want is for a player to run all afternoon and throw themselves into every game and that’s what they get out of Ødegaard. Even when on loan, it was noted how high his work rate is. If you want someone to press high and hard all afternoon, this is yer man. I don’t have his running stats but it wouldn’t surprise me if he topped Arsenal’s squad for km covered.

When he was a teenager he was always praised for his positional sense and his ability to find space. In fact, if you read comments from his report cards along the way, it perfectly describes his form this season.

‘Quick-footed, with natural balance, pace and excellent shooting power.’

‘For his age he is unbelievable – his knowledge of the game is unbelievable and his technical skills are fantastic.’

Although he’s not the biggest boy in class, he has added some beef to his frame and is now more of a physical specimen compared to when he was younger. At least on TV he looks taller than his 5ft 10in.

Like all the best players, he finds time on the ball, partly because he has superb control, partly because he has the ability to find space to operate in and partly because he’s got a quick footballing brain which allows him an extra half second to pick his pass.

His role as playmaker in an Arsenal side that is always looking to move the ball forward is the perfect role for him. He so often seems to be the man who passes the ball to the player that makes the assist.

Also, his story of early fame and promise, hopes dashed and reignited, is a very attractive one. There is nothing better in football than seeing a player develop from decent into great. This season it is as though he has unlocked football’s door after having lost the key for a few years. He is playing with his head up and his chest out and looks every bit the matured teenage prodigy that everyone acclaimed him to be six or seven years ago.

 

Three great moments
Even aged just 15 you can see the player he would become at Arsenal:

Did I mention he’s pretty damn good at free-kicks?

This is his typically superb form this season:

 

Future days?
His contract runs until 2025 with a year’s extension available at that point. If, as seems likely, Arsenal win the league this season, or at least come close, he is a crucial part of the team and I’m sure the club will try and get him to extend his contract for as long as possible. Playmakers as good as him are not ten a penny and he plays that very modern midfield role where he drifts between the lines and can be found anywhere from blocking play on the halfway line to bursting into the box.

Yeah, that’s what he is: modern. He’s a very modern player. He’s super fit and covers so much ground that at times it’s like having an extra player on the pitch.

Internationally speaking, he’s been playing for Norway since he was 15 years and 253 days old – their youngest ever international – and now has 47 caps and two goals and is the team captain. Although they didn’t get to the World Cup, they are putting together a side with some serious talent. When they’ve got Ødegaard feeding Erling Haaland, they’ve surely got a great chance of qualifying for the next Euros with Spain and Scotland the best two other teams in their group.

At 24 he’s still developing and will be hitting his peak in the coming years. Is he the key to Arsenal winning the title? Probably. Is there anyone in their squad who can do what he does on current form? Absolutely not. That just shows what an immense player he is becoming.