Martin Ødegaard, to the pleasant surprise of most Real Madrid fans, started on Sunday night against his former club, Real Sociedad. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise given Zidane made that infamous phone call to the Norwegian which saw the two year loan pact with Real Sociedad broken. Either way, once the match started, all eyes were on where and how the Norwegian would play.
Zidane trusted his playmaker by placing him in his preferred position, as an advanced central midfielder - in between the lines, or as many like to say “the #10” spot. Ødegaard is at his best in transition, when he receives the ball in between the opposition’s midfield and defensive line, can turn, and can run at a retreating defense with offensive off ball runs being made ahead of him. From there, he can zip one of his incisive progressive passes to an on-running finisher.
So how often was Ødegaard put in that position vs Real Sociedad? A meager three times — in the 17th, 24th, and 52nd minute:
Ødegaard stuck to Zidane’s instructions and was disciplined in his position. He rarely ever came deep for the ball, he stayed high - always in search of pockets of space. The Karim Benzema chance, the featured opportunity in the final sequence of the video above, is arguably the best of the game. If Ødegaard can be placed in those situation above more often, say 5-6 times a game, like he was for Real Sociedad, Madrid can reap greater benefits.
His close control and efficiency in tight spaces in the final third is what separates him from other players. In the 69 minute sample size from this game alone, a chemistry between Ødegaard and Benzema began to brew thanks to their appreciation and understanding of the game’s time and space mechanics. Few in the world are as clean in a one-two interchange as Ø:
The Norwegian can be the locksmith that breaks down the tightest of defenses. He is cold and calm when in the trenches of the opposition’s defense. In recent years, most La Liga sides have become more pragmatic and defensively resilient. This includes teams sitting deeper and keeping tighter lines within their formation on a pitch. For Zidane’s offensive tactical game to continue to evolve, he knows incorporating Ødegaard is the key. Om Arvind broke this down in incredible detail.
Sure, there was rust and fatigue in the opening La Liga match of the season. On top of that, Ødegaard is still learning his teammates movements and likewise they are learning his preferences. Zidane even implemented some other tactical wrinkles - like Ferland Mendy’s offensive positioning and the change in set-pieces - all broken down in lengthy detail on our post-match podcast.
Some examples of the learning phase of these new tactical set-ups include the following: Luka Modric, on multiple occasions in this match, would venture forward into the same right half-space that Ødegaard was looking to occupy, forcing the Norwegian to recycle his run or move to the left half space — a space that Benzema would often occupy. In other words, players were running into each other. These are growing pains of a change in scheme and change in personnel. These wrinkles can be ironed out. Modric and Ødegaard can co-exist. Of the three “between the lines” opportunities shown in the first video, Modric played two of the three line-breaking passes which freed Ødegaard. Greater clarity and understanding of their roles when on the pitch together will come with time.
Though not up to the usual astronomically high standards he has set, Ødegaard’s game had encouraging moments. Increasing the opportunities in transition from which the Norwegian receives the ball and can run at a retreating backline will only increase Madrid’s xG. Zidane was happy with Ødegaard’s performance after the match, as he knows these small details will improve over the course of the season. There is certainly room to grow, as there always will be, but let’s take the positive from the Norwegian maestro’s first performance back with Real Madrid.