Real Sociedad’s 2-2 draw against FC Barcelona was one of the most impressive on-ball performances in La Liga this season. Manager Imanol Alguacil designed an incisive, possession-based system that cleanly progressed the ball down Barcelona’s left-hand side. Martin Ødegaard, playing as the right central midfielder in a 4-3-3, was critical to this scheme.
He managed a second-best 89 touches compared to all other personnel on the field and was the player most responsible for Real Sociedad’s ball progression. Besides playing in a position that placed him at the hub of his side’s most important networks, it was Ødegaard’s clever offensive positioning that made him so important against Barcelona’s press.
Barcelona defended aggressively in an asymmetric fashion from a nominal 4-4-2 structure; Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez rushed Diego Llorente and Igor Zubeldia, while Sergio Busquets stepped up onto Ander Guevara. In midfield, Antoine Griezmann shifted out to the left to shadow Joseba Zaldúa, Rakitić sat on Mikel Merino while trying to ensure pressing access to Nacho Monreal, and Frenkie de Jong marked Ødegaard. If Real Sociedad progressed, the plan was for Sergi Roberto to move onto Monreal while Gerard Piqué handled Mikel Oyarzabal.
La Blaugrana’s execution was actually quite good, but Ødegaard consistently broke their game plan. He slipped into pockets outside of de Jong’s cover shadow and occasionally moved deep to create space in-behind that he could run into.
Not everyone can play this role. It takes a relentless application of game intelligence to constantly find the open space and to be aware of the potential danger behind and around you. It also requires the player to be brave and disciplined. A natural instinct in this sport is to gravitate towards the ball and receive away from pressure. To purposefully station yourself in areas where it is more difficult to operate demonstrates Ødegaard’s confidence in his technical quality, which is completely warranted.
Ødegaard seamlessly received on the half-turn all game, allowing him to instantly face Barcelona’s defense and attack the last line. His ball control when he needed to evade pressure was also sublime; he was unbelievably composed and completed 4 dribbles at a 100% success rate.
Equally importantly, Ødegaard capitalized on his advanced positioning between the lines by constantly searching for progressive passing options.
His scanning to counter danger and his Yoda-like patience were two things I only truly caught when revisiting the tape. These are really subtle traits that happen to be vital to a good playmaker. Without the ability to quickly collect information and process it at warp speeds, you’re never going to move your team into more advanced positions. And without the calmness to wait for the right play to develop, you’ll rarely get the opportunity to make the decisive pass.
However, I don’t want to give the impression that Ødegaard was perfect with his passing on the night, or sizably better than his teammates in this regard. The likes of Guevara were just as important with their vertical passing and Ødegaard had a couple moments where his feet failed him or he missed the right option in his desire to play hero ball.
Still, those instances were rare, and Ødegaard was undeniably a net-positive influence. For the primary risk-taker in midfield, his passing accuracy was impressive (85.3% on 68 attempts).
Ødegaard’s defensive work was less essential but is worth pointing out nonetheless.
Like Ernesto Valverde, Alguacil also manipulated his midfield shape in order to match the opposition’s situational back three. In this case, it was Ødegaard who stepped onto the defensive midfielder while Guevara and Merino formed a double pivot to finishing off the man-marking scheme. In order to deal with the free man in Alba, Portu pressed Lenglet from an angle so that he could cover shadow the passing option out wide.
Ødegaard did his bit for his manager and provided further evidence that he’s more than a willing presser. It is for that reason that Alguacil likely has Ødegaard step up alongside Alexander Isak when Real Sociedad have to defend deeper. Another (and not necessarily contradictory) explanation is that this adjustment works to hide his flaws when defending deeper.
Quick Notes on One-Offs from Ødegaard
- Despite the good dribbling numbers, this wasn’t really one of those games where Ødegaard collapsed the defense a ton by running at defenders (he was more about carrying the ball into space, as shown by his 8 progressive runs). There was one moment like this, however, that is worth showing:
- Just look at the way my son glides past three defenders like he’s kid Goku on his Flying Nimbus.
- An excellent Ødegaard corner kick caused Busquets to blatantly clutch his man’s shirt. Oyarzabal successfully converted from the resulting penalty to open the scoring.