RAHUL IYER | 21st August 2021

It was a transfer saga that seemed to go back and forth all through summer but the deal has finally come to fruition. After spending the second half of last season on loan at the Emirates, Martin Ødegaard has bid farewell to Real Madrid with London calling as he joins Arsenal on a permanent deal.

The reaction to the transfer has been a mixed bag. While a certain section of seem to have smiles on their faces at the obvious: signing a highly-rated 22-year old attacking midfielder for €35 million, the others seem to be vexed due to 3 reasons.

  1. “He was here last season anyway” is a popular, yet laborious take.
  2. Ødegaard doesn’t profile as an output machine that can change the course of the Gunners’ campaign on his back
  3. Despite spending north of £130. million this summer, Arsenal’s strongest XI is pretty much a mirror image of last season.

Firstly, the Norwegian can’t change any of the 3 reasons mentioned. Most importantly, it’s easy to forget that Ødegaard is still very young.

Having been in the public eye ever since his move to the Bernabeu at the age of 15, he has had the pressure of expectations weighing down on him for quite a while now.

Despite not cementing a regular starting berth at Los Blancos, he has impressed during loan spells at various clubs (especially at Real Sociedad) and racked up over 10,000 minutes of senior football in 7 seasons.

What Arsenal fans have seen so far is just a teaser. So, what does the Norwegian skipper really bring to the Gunners?

Crunching the numbers

The above images show Ødegaard’s touch maps for the 2017/18, ‘18/19 and ‘19/20 seasons (the last 3 where he spent the entire campaign at one club).

Despite often being put down as a winger on the team sheet, he was often given the license to roam and move inside to receive passes from his deeper midfielders, and at times, directly from the centre-backs.

Whichever way you slice it, the Castilla graduate is most definitely a creative midfielder and while starting in a wide position may help him escape crowded areas in midfield, he would likely still be extremely effective as a more traditional No. 10 or the most advanced player in a midfield three (depending upon the composition of the two alongside him).

Now last season, Ødegaard received minimal playing time at Madrid, starting 5 games and making only 9 appearances in total, between September and January.

When Ødegaard arrived at London Colney at the end of January, however, he made his presence felt in the Premier League.

Compared to other midfielders in the league (below), he was one of the top players in the league (behind only Kevin De Bruyne and Bruno Fernandes) for open play shot-creating actions registered per 90 minutes. Here’s the kicker though.

Both KDB and Bruno create a high volume of chances because they often play high-risk passes. Try 10 and 3 will come off, essentially.

Ødegaard however, was able to maintain a consistently high level of chance creation while simultaneously playing relatively safer passes. Precision was never sacrificed in the name of risk.

In his short stint at the Emirates, he also consistently put up high numbers for progressive passes and progressive carries (according to FBRef, he ranked in the 90th and 84th percentiles respectively for those metrics).

And as a general observation, the former Vitesse loanee’s attitude when it came to pressing opponents was also commendable, even if it could do with some tweaking to be more effective.

Perhaps his performance was due in part to the fact that he had warmed the bench for much of the season and was just fresher and sharper than his teammates and opponents, but these are impressive numbers nevertheless.

The pictures tell a story

Another facet of Ødegaard’s games that sticks out is his high usage rate Essentially, he’s a player who likes to get on the ball throughout the game and try to make things happen.

Note: Usage rate is metric that shows what percentage of a team’s total touches on the ball an individual player is responsible for. Receiving a pass, dribbling and then sending a pass counts as one touch.

This results in him making and receiving a large volume of passes, sometimes by dropping deep in the first phase of possession, like this:

The other major way Martin gets on the ball is by occupying space within opposition defensive lines and making himself available for what are more or less straight-line passes.

Due to the fact that he often receives the ball with his back to goal, Ødegaard has developed a quick turn and shift of the ball from under his feet to create an avenue of attack, before laying it off or putting off-ball runners through behind the defense.

When he does get on the ball, we’ve seen that Arsenal’s No.8 is a reliable keeper and circulator of possession, with what is usually a high pass completion rate. But a more interesting question is- how and when does he choose to play the killer ball?

During his time with Real Sociedad in Spain, Ødegaard was a supremely effective shot assister, averaging over 2 direct shot assists per game. This, however, was largely down to Sociedad’s possession-based style of play and the way opposition teams set up against them.

At Arsenal, his game has shifted slightly, with the likes of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe sharing the creative burden.

While he is still adept at facilitating his forwards, his main contribution to attacking moves comes in the form of playing runners in behind down the flanks, as he does here:

Basically, while he was the primary creative outlet at Sociedad, Ødegaard is slightly more of a ‘pass-before the key pass’ type of player at Arsenal. It will be interesting if that continues to be the case this season.

How does he fit in?

Luckily, we already have a good sense of how Mikel Arteta is likely to use Ødegaard. Playing as the No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 system means he will be moving less horizontally and more vertically, flitting between lines and dropping, trying to disrupt teams’ defensive shapes.

However, from an Arsenal point of view, the team management needs to surround him with the right pieces.

Playing with a striker like Alexandre Lacazette who drops deep is likely to interfere with Ødegaard’s game and blunt his effectiveness.

Adding to this point, as exciting as it sounds, playing Smith-Rowe and Saka either side of him would not be ideal, unless one of the other two develops a solid off-the-ball game, considering the Norwegian’s penchant for finding runners.

Having someone like Nicolas Pepe or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to provide the option of stretching defenses would suit the young buck’s game so much more.

Rahul’s Verdict

These caveats aside, this deal makes sense on a lot of levels.

There aren’t many 22-year-olds with Ødegaard’s experience and a skillset that matches what Arsenal need going around. The reported fee of €35 million is one that could look like peanuts in a few years’ time.

The potential for a profit, in case Arsenal stagnate and Ødegaard develops, is also a tempting one. It may be a little early to say this, but played right, this could be one of the better cut-price deals of the 2021 Premier League summer window.

With that being said, it is advisable to hold hold your horses with the ‘Ø > Ö’ tweets.

Sources (for still images): Sky Sports and BT Sports

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