La Liga Lowdown
There's Something About Martin - The Future of Real Madrid's Midfield
Written by Matt Clark
Martin Ødegaard has become one of the best midfielders in LaLiga - and it hasn't gone unnoticed. His parent club, Real Madrid are watching intently, having already experienced first-hand the influence he can have on a game - after being a crucial cog in the Real Sociedad machine that fired them out of the Copa Del Rey quarter-final.
It's hard to overstate the extent of the hype before Norwegian prodigy Martin Ødegaard joined Real Madrid in 2015. Born to a former player and coach in his father Hans Erik, he had the perfect environment to develop and was keenly watched by scouts from numerous European giants ready to fight over his signature. His talent was undoubted; before even turning 16, he became the youngest player to play and score in Norway's Tippeligaen, and such early achievements bring pressure, but also praise. Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told TZ.de that Ødegaard was the "beautiful bride with many possible grooms" while his coach at Strømsgodset, David Nielsen, described him as a "superhero" on Norwegian TV station TV2.
The move to Real Madrid inevitably raised questions about the fairness of catapulting a child into a "superclub". How would a player so young adjust, especially at a club where everything gets analysed in such microscopic detail? Featuring in TIME’s ‘30 Most Influential Teens of 2015’, Ødegaard showed his maturity: “If you get carried away now, you won’t get far in ten years. I’m supposed to be at my best then, not now.”
However, his exponential rise stunted in Spain. Limited playing time for Castilla jeopardised his progress. The naysayers appeared vindicated. Comparisons became less Lionel Messi and more Freddy Adu, the United States international who shone in MLS as a teenager but stuttered after joining Benfica. Adu played for 14 teams in seven countries before returning permanently to the USA. In January 2017, Ødegaard sought sanctuary in the Eredivisie with Heerenveen, but started slowly and was dropped. At this point, there appeared to be at least some justification in the use of the ‘flop’ label. Eventually, he performed well enough to persuade Vitesse to loan him for the 2018-19 season. Still just 19, Ødegaard began to show the promise that preceded the move to Madrid. In all competitions he registered 11 goals and 12 assists, making it into an Eredivisie Team of the Year dominated by Ajax stars like Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong. He had persuaded Real Madrid to bring him back to Spain.
On loan at Real Sociedad, Ødegaard has been a revelation, making the joint second-most key passes per match in LaLiga (2.3), creating eight big chances (placing him fourth in the league) and registering nine direct goal involvements before Christmas. His assist in the 3-0 win over Alavés was spellbindingly good, a perfect slide-rule defence-splitting pass which gets better on every viewing. Tellingly, he is also the player who has won possession in the final third most often (23), illustrating his tenacity and determination to work for the team. Just before Christmas, Real Sociedad edged a seven-goal thriller at El Sadar, and Ødegaard was instrumental in the first half. First, he played a neat reverse-pass for the opener and then thundered in a free-kick on the half-hour. This was the second time he has scored and assisted in the same game this season.
He has slotted into Imanol Alguacil’s plans seamlessly as if he had been playing there for years. His understanding with other young starlets like Mikel Oyarzabal and Mikel Merino, in particular, has been one of the standout combinations in the first half of this season. So high is the level of performance from Ødegaard that he is restricting the game-time of Adnan Januzaj, another once highly-touted prospect at Manchester United. That’s not to say that Januzaj is failing in any way, but it’s a stark reminder that early promise is no guarantee of
anything in football.
Ødegaard was recently the subject of a ‘Día de Los Inocentes’ prank, with La Real 'announcing' that he was set to join Manchester City on loan. While this was the equivalent of an April Fools joke, the fact that many on social media believed it is further evidence of Ødegaard's potential ceiling. For now, the best place for Ødegaard is Real Sociedad, but what is certain is that his long-term future is back at Real Madrid.
His loan at Anoeta is until 2021, but it's more than plausible that Los Blancos could curtail it, especially with James Rodríguez, Gareth Bale and Isco all linked with moves away from the Bernabéu. That would free up some space in a squad which has an evolutionary feel about it - Ødegaard would face competition from the Brazilian duo of Rodrygo Goes and Vinícius Junior and possibly also Brahim Díaz for a starting place, but it is a battle the Norwegian is likely to win with his all-round skillset and natural tendency to contribute defensively. The
only thing he lacks is raw pace, but he more than compensates with his mental sharpness and agility to beat opponents. With application, balance, spatial awareness and an eye for a killer pass, Ødegaard possesses all the tools necessary to be integral for years to come.
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