These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.
Ronny Deila, former Norwegian footballer and now head coach of Valerenga, met Martin Odegaard when the wonder-kid was just 14. Deila was managing Stromsgodset at the time, and was Odegaard’s first trainer at the professional level. He saw the potential right away, and little did Odegaard’s teammates know that Deila was about to anoint Odegaard, still a kid, as the team’s focal point.
The following season, Deila inserted 15-year-old Odegaard as Stromsgodset’s free-roaming midfielder. Odegaard was suddenly the key cog of the team’s offense.
No one opposed the decision. The older players embraced the idea. Odegaard was too good and too mature to complain about. Players were happy to let him pull the strings. “You saw in training every day that he had something special,” Deila told me. “So the players were very, very impressed.”
“All players love to have players that play like him,” Deila continued. “They just saw his talent.”
Deila says he knew Odegaard was special the first time he saw him play. He had no hesitation in giving him a large role. When the two first met, Odegaard was on a semi-professional contract, meaning he was only eligible to play up to three games with the senior side per Norwegian football league rules. He could not train with Stromsgodset in the day time as he attended his compulsory education.
In 2014, everything changed. Odegaard said goodbye to the Stromsgodset youth team, and joined the senior side officially. He jumped from three appearances to 25.
“He was way ahead of the other players in intelligence and technique,” Deila says of the gap between Odegaard and his other youth teammates at Stromsgodset.
“So I’m not surprised that he has taken these steps (at Real Sociedad).”
Odegaard is now known for his off-the-charts knack for playing vertical passes and generating chances at an elite clip. He refuses to let defensive lines breathe. He can receive the ball deep on the flank and slice a key pass from an unlikely position. He’ll eel his way out of tight spots and dribble past multiple defenders just to find an opening. There is no such thing as a set defense when Odegaard has the ball.
Deila unleashed that at a young age, but doesn’t credit himself for discovering the unique line-breaking ability.
“I think he learned that before he came to Stromsgodset,” Deila says. “It’s just his way of playing.”
Deila took Odegaard’s skills and polished them by putting them center stage. What we’re seeing at Real Sociedad is nothing new — it’s only more pronounced and covered by the media in Spain more closely. At Heerenveen, skeptics pointed at his low assist numbers as a sign of his lack of ingenuity. They missed the eye test and advanced metrics where the Norwegian created chances that his teammates couldn’t finish. Odegaard underperformed his xA (expected assists) in all three years in the Eredivsie. With better teammates around him, his assist numbers have finally caught up to his xA now. He currently hits over four passes into the box per game per Wyscout — well above average. His defensive pressure and dribbling numbers are elite.
Deila believed that to bring out Odegaard’s best, he needed to give the attacker freedom on the pitch, without many defensive duties — something he still believes holds true. When Deila left Stromsgodset to manage Celtic, he tried to lure Odegaard to the Scottish club but couldn’t, as Real Madrid won the race ahead of a dozen other clubs that chased him. Deila likely would’ve given Odegaard the same offensive clout if their paths met again, believing that the best offensive players should be given the freedom to create, sans tactical duties in deep positions.
“I think it’s important that, of course, when you play, you feel free and you don’t think of consequences and you can go on the pitch and control yourself,” Deila says.
Deila goes on to clarify that not any ordinary player is deserving of such a role. “But he was very mentally strong,” Deila says. “And his vision and intelligence was so, so high. It was just very strange to give a 15-year-old boy a spot in the first team, but he was too good to keep away because he was so good in training every day.
Where Odegaard’s ultimate position lies is a common debate in Spain. He’s become so versatile, that no longer do people perceive him as an attacking midfielder — but an all-around titan who can play deeper and organize the team’s offense and press.
Deila sees him as a ‘10’.
“Number 10,” Deila says to me.
“Number 10.” I echo.
“Number 10 on the pitch. I think that’s his best position,” Deila says. “I think the older he gets, when he gets toward 30, he’ll be playing probably a ‘6’ or something as well. But right now, he’s so creative — he should be as high up the pitch as possible.
Odegaard gets compared to virtually any left-footed inverted winger who can dribble, pass, and play with grace: Lionel Messi, Mesut Ozil, David Silva. Deila has a different player comp: Christian Eriksen.
“He’s a very tall gentleman,” Deila says. “He gets goals and moves a lot. Fantastic left foot. I think he’s a guy that you can compare him to.”
Deila knows that this is only the beginning for Odegaard. It has to be. He’s still 20 — incredible for a player we’ve been talking about for so long. He’s long been asked to polish certain attributes of his game, namely: scoring and physicality. Both are starting to shape up. He has added size over the years (something normal for any teenager). Last season he scored 12 goals at Vitesse — not bad for a right winger — and this season he’s scored two game-winners (against Atletico Madrid and Mallorca respectively) in his first 11 games.
“I think he still has to improve physically,” Deila says. “His strength, quickness and footwork. He needs a little more speed over distance. He’s very quick in short spaces, but when he runs longer, he needs to be quicker – but he has worked on that a lot the last few years. But I think he needs to be getting more goals too. To get into (scoring) positions and become an even better finisher.”
There is something satisfying about the way Odegaard is now knocking down the door of every skeptic that wrote about him. The criticism dished at him wasn’t normal. At the age of 18, he was labelled by one media outlet as a ‘failed galactico’. The word ‘flop’ was regularly used when he was 17, and one Spanish paper called him a ‘disaster’ in 2016. Odegaard stayed silent, worked his way up the ranks, and has arguably been the league’s best player this season. If not, he’s at least showcased in the best XI.