The talk of the town in Madrid at the moment is the bombshell news that Martin Ødegaard has reportedly requested to leave on loan in the winter transfer window due to a lack of playing time this season. At face value, as jarring and unsettling as this is from the perspective of losing a highly touted player for the current campaign, it also appears to be an unfortunate reaffirmation of a theme that has emerged in recent years. The success stories of young players that have left Real Madrid under Zidane’s tutelage to subsequently flourish at other clubs such as Sergio Reguilón, Marcos Llorente, Theo Hernandez and Achraf Hakimi has been a sour note for some fans. This was further highlighted by Luka Jović’s almost fateful brace last Sunday upon his return to Germany as he scored two incredibly well taken goals.
With this evidence and the emotion arising from watching the huge potential of players acquired by the club — in a relatively modern shift towards more youth focused transfers — seemingly go to waste means there is a lot of noise. Especially when one of the most revered and acutely followed young players of his generation is involved. Ødegaard did the impossible and all things considered managed to somewhat live up to the hype that surrounded his emergence when he was brought in to the Bernabeu at just 16 years old. Add to this how the Norwegian carved his own path showing both determination and goodwill in moving to the Eredivise before finding a home back in Spain at Real Sociedad where he thrived. Real Madrid evidently took notice and recalled the burgeoning star — with an alleged promise to feature prominently — in the middle of a two year loan.
So where did it all go wrong?
Ødegaard has featured in nine games — five times as a starter — of 25 matches and played approximately 390 minutes of a total 2,300 minutes. Many are laying the blame squarely at Zidane’s feet for the paltry playing time the player had to date. Many are also using this to somehow suggest that the manager may not be the right fit for Real Madrid’s new strategic focus with the buzzwords of the day being “transition” and “youth development”.
There is no doubt evolving the team and building on the young base are critical aspects of team management for where the club finds itself today. However, any suggestion that these are the number one priority is almost entirely conjecture — especially given the club’s history and relationship with trophies as the ultimate maxim. And while the sample size is insufficient to draw any valid conclusions, the reality is that Ødegaard hasn’t necessarily set the world on fire this season which could have impacted his selection to a degree. This isn’t a specific criticism of the player as he hasn’t had continuity and higher profile players such as Eden Hazard have suffered the same struggles with adaptation and finding their feet but the truth is that someone in his position has a shorter leash.
More context behind Odegaard’s minutes
There’s no denying that the raw numbers paint a grim picture — Ødegaard has only played an estimated 16% (!) of total minutes. But this isn’t even a question of performance at the end of the day because we don’t have enough enough data points or matches to evaluate Ødegaard. And the cries for his playing time seem to ignore the bigger picture of what the team’s objectives are this season and the very cutthroat nature of life at the Bernabeu. It was less than a few months ago that the question of whether Zidane should continue as manager was being seriously asked by fans and the media. The hilarity of the situation where a manager with Zidane’s insane record has to walk a tightrope after a major stumble puts the importance of “integrating youth” into perspective.
For this reason, it is helpful to divide the current season into two parts. The matches up to the loss against Shaktar Donetsk in December and the ones that followed. Zidane reacted to a worrying juncture of the season (apparently with the prompting and support of senior squad members) to pick a more stable line-up. The dichotomy of the team selection prior to and after that match is so strong that it is unfair to characterize the post-Shaktar Donetsk period as reflective of Zidane’s general management of Ødegaard.
Up to December 1, 2020, Ødegaard played 377 minutes (or only 27% of the total playing time). However, factoring in the games for which he was unavailable due to injury as he experienced issues with his calf muscle, that percentage jumps up to 45% (!) — almost half the games/minutes for which he was available. This shows that Zidane was indeed making an effort to integrate the 22 year old. There can certainly be a debate as to whether it still wasn’t enough but 45% of available minutes is far from how this situation is currently being framed.
After December 1, 2020, the Norwegian’s minutes plummeted as did many of the non-core players of the squad (especially for midfielders). Zidane reverted to his trusted old guard in a moment of turbulence relying on his personal instinct and professional judgement to make a call in response to poor results that some were saying could have led to his sacking. Seven wins out of ten games and remaining undefeated, except for the Super Cup, in that stretch effectively means the manager’s strategy paid off. This does not invalidate the concerns of Ødegaard’s overall lack of minutes but simply shows that the primary motivation above all else for the manager is to find ways to achieve success on the field.