Among the hubbub of an important game versus Rayo Vallecano and Cristiano Ronaldo's 300th goal for Real Madrid yesterday was a story from As about Martin Ødegaard which sent many into a rush to barrage the world with various hottakes and misguided barbs. The report stated that Castilla is back to its winning ways with Ødegaard being dropped, that they play with 10 men when he's on the pitch and that Ødegaard has refused to train with the reserves. Lots to cover here.
First, it's interesting to note how there haven't been any reports of training discontent prior to this one, and certainly at least not to this level. By most accounts, Ødegaard is a highly professional, likable kid who is trying to adapt and win the friendship and trust of his teammates despite the language and cultural barriers standing in the way. Now that the team bounced back to win two games without Ødegaard following a losing streak with him, the narrative is a convenient "Ødegaard is holding this team back, he's unhappy with his Castilla status."
What the author of this piece fails to recognize, whether on purpose or through sheer incompetence in journalistic research (my money is firmly on the latter), is a couple important things. First, the idea that Ødegaard was dropped for these games solely due to a technical decision or some form of punishment. In the first of the two games, Ødegaard was on national team duty with Norway so of course there was no way that he could participate. The second game was a couple days after said international duty and against the team at the bottom of the table so rest could be afforded to Ødegaard given that he played a full match versus a solid Croatia side. However, even with him on the bench the Castilla side didn't exactly flourish as middling Conquense was able to go toe-to-toe with them for the majority of the game. So, sit Ødegaard as the team wins and you get a narrative that he's holding them back, but when sat versus a poor team Castilla still managed to make a tough time of it. Basically, this game offered two contrasting opinions to take from it even though neither is overwhelmingly convincing.
What does this tell us about the author's assertion that the team plays with 10 players instead of 11 when Ødegaard is included? Virtually zero other than that it's a terrible argument that means nothing. The implication that Ødegaard is somehow holding this side back is pretty absurd given that many of these same players are the reason that Castilla dropped to the unacceptable level it did. During the losing streak, Castilla was the recipient of a couple unfortunate bounces and penalty kicks but certain players on offense seemed to be more interested in going for the flashy individual plays than working for the best of the team, singling out Ødegaard for this just reeks of distaste for the big name foreign signing since a number of his teammates' feet could be held to the fire. His responsibility for Castilla isn't so enormous that results completely hinge on his performance, training and mastery of the Spanish language and buddying up with his teammates (though, of course, all these things help). Bringing in a player midseason will always lead to an adjustment period, but one doesn't have to spend hours poring over the footage to see that Ødegaard is on a different level from most of his peers and competition. It's certainly an odd singling out.
However; if we're being honest with ourselves, people were always going to wait on the first sign of discord to jump on Ødegaard and Real Madrid in order to bray about how he should've gone somewhere like Ajax if he truly cared about his development and career (even though Ajax is chock-full of attacking midfield starlets of their own and have internal strife regarding their own youth development). Over the years, a narrative around Real Madrid has developed that's led people to believe that the academy is a poor one incapable of churning out top-flight talents, that this club might as well shut down the academy or at least consolidate the teams to bring the best talent to the top. However, the success of its graduates debunks that theory despite said graduates moving on from their parent club. The problem isn't the quality of the talent produced at Madrid but rather the chances they get to make a name for themselves in the first team. What's different about Ødegaard is that he's essentially guaranteed a shot in the first team due to the nature of his transfer, the hype and battle for his signature will ensure this.
Now, that's not to say that Ødegaard camp should get away scot-free in this whole situation. His play can certainly improve as he only has one goal and no assists to his name, but those will come as he gets more familiar with his teammates and the league. The real area of improvement is off the ball on defense where he can be found slacking an alarming number of times. Outside of matches, if he was promised five first-team training sessions then so be it, it's part of his contract and these obligations have to be met. However, if any part of the assertion that Ødegaard is being standoffish is true then that needs to be nipped in the bud immediately. Yes, he has more natural talent than his teammates and at times has run circles around the weak opposition around him. Yes, he was brought to the club with the promise of being on the pitch with Cristiano Ronaldo and the like. However, he's only 17 years old at a club which will hold his hands for the foreseeable future given the hubbub around his transfer so he needn't fear that first team opportunities will pass him by. Bouts of immaturity will plague almost everyone at that age, but these bouts have to be dealt with as soon as possible given the incredible opportunity laying in front of him.
The club also put itself in a highly precarious position as it is, again, pumping up a youngster's ego with the hopes that he won't notice that he's better than the players around him and that he won't demand more now that he's been propped up so much. We see this happen with other clubs as well, it's not only Madrid-specific, luring in a youngster with short-term promises but not establishing a regimented long-term plan which will ensure their development while transitioning them through the ranks on the way to the first team. Perhaps the only way they could sign him is by making this offer of training with the first team squad, but the club has to work to find other ways to tempt youngsters to join that won't destabilize player hierarchy and youth system camaraderie. The pomp and circumstance surrounding his transfer was sure to rub some the wrong way, namely teammates who have worked hard to try and make the cut only to see a youngster come in from the outside and with full chances to advance further than them. But again, by most indications his teammates have taken to him as best as they can and this is the first real report of dissent aside from the initial teammates' comments when he was bought, though those same comments were cleared up soon after. Still, it's a big risk that the club took and some may find it an unnecessary one.
No one comes away from this unscathed. Ødegaard has work to do on and off the pitch if he wants to be the star that was promised to him, his Castilla side have to pick themselves up from this poor form they've been mired in if they want to be promoted, Zinedine Zidane has to incorporate his talented youngster in a way to maximize his and his team's ability and someone in the club hierarchy has to sit down with Ødegaard and his father to map out a course which would not only benefit his progress but the whole of the club as well. These are the type of actions which stop fueling the fire that hack parasites like Hermel and As feed off of. If it was a senior player like Modric was then it's fine as they've been through the fires of media pressure, but when it comes to youth players with potentially fragile compositions it's another thing altogether.