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Arsenal are the winner of Real Madrid’s mishandling of Martin Odegaard

Kiyan Sobhani’s column, on what went wrong with Odegaard’s season at Real Madrid, and how this might unfold in the coming months

FBL-ESP-NOR-REALMADRID-OEDEGAARD Photo credit should read GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images

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.

Real Madrid were in a tough spot in the summer of 2020. Just about every team on earth was, to be sure, but those that were privately funded had means to splash money on squad upgrades. Real Madrid had no such luxury, leaving them with few options to cover up squad deficiencies. That will not change anytime soon. Any upcoming signings will either be frugal (unlikely) or through free-agent signings. Even then, the club will not be able to avoid paying up front for players. Transfer fees will be replaced with signing fees and agent fees. In the case of someone like David Alaba, they’d be dishing out a massive salary, and the club is already struggling to keep up with wages in a frail economic world.

What Real Madrid did have to fall back on: investments they made years prior in Martin Odegaard, finally paying off. The umbrella of the club’s loan system, finally bearing fruit after years of nurturing, extends over a vast playing field across Europe. The club had options to draw from, perhaps none more pertinent than Martin Odegaard, who, stylistically, solves a lot of the team’s build-up and press-resistancy issues.

Odegaard was doing more than fine at Real Sociedad. Few players can land in the Messi stratosphere of chance-creation, but Odegaard did, in an incredible offensive-blitz in the first six months of last season. Odegaard positions himself between the lines. He goes north-south, like a vertical demon, and only plays the simple ball backwards as a last resort. He cuts through defensive lines centrally even through traffic, navigating the ball through a 40-yard channel. He provides something different than the nominal offensive scheme that relies on crossing (factually unsuccessful from a goal-production standpoint). Most would see bringing Odegaard back during the summer, in a world where other upgrades are not possible, as a no-brainer.

Theoretically, the decision was easy. Odegaard’s profile fits. But there was always a risk, and it was obvious. The Odegaard - Real Sociedad union was beautiful. He elevated the team, the team elevated him. He was the key cog, and Immanol Alguacil created a blueprint which not only fit the Norwegian, but maximized the output of the surrounding pieces. It was an unbroken marriage. If Real Madrid were to tamper with that guild, it could stall — possibly even derail — Odegaard’s development.

Real Madrid don’t owe Real Sociedad anything. The clubs have a good relationship, but ultimately, they do what’s best for themselves. In the end, recalling Odegaard was fine for La Real. They pursued David Silva, and are getting a great version of him. They knew that Odegaard wasn’t theirs to keep anyway. What Real Madrid risked was not their relationship with the San Sebastian outfit, but the interference with a really promising Odegaard trajectory.

In retaining Odegaard, Real Madrid got what they needed: help offensively. But again, that’s only what they got in theory. Odegaard has played 234 minutes this season. He has missed 10 games due to injury (unrelated to his chronic knee problems), and outside of that lost the trust of Zinedine Zidane after returning to full health. His numbers across the board dropped, but the sample size, and the context of a new environment, jumps out quickly as an explanation.

Zidane saw Odegaard as a solution this summer. He saw the value instantly, and played him in his ideal diamond role on the first night of the season. Odegaard was fine. He was not other-worldly, and he was not a disaster. If nothing else, he was a constant outlet, worked hard to get between the lines invariably. With him on the field, the team always had an option for a vertical pass in dangerous spots. That’s something they didn’t consistently get last season outside of Fede Valverde.

A precious six months flew by. It has not been the first time Real Madrid bring someone into the team that they believe will help, only to see up close that they’re not what they had hoped — and even if they were, it’s hard to find the patience to endure the growing pains to get those players where they need to be. Odegaard grew frustrated. Both he and the club have a right to feel the way they do. Odegaard wants to play, and had one year of his loan spell left to enjoy. The club tinkered with that initial loan deal, and took risk doing so. Zidane now wants to take a different approach with the lineup. Who is right and who is wrong matters little in a footballing world that cares little about justice.

Odegaard is just one challenge that Zidane has had to deal with, but the predicament expands much larger and looms: Zidane will always have difficulty juggling the depth chart — one that gets filled and emptied regularly. There was a time where the bank was deposited with Dani Ceballos and Mateo Kovacic; then replenished with Fede Valverde and Martin Odegaard. What will it look like in two years? This problem won’t go away any time soon. Zidane was criticized earlier this season for rotating too much, and the team couldn’t establish rhythm. Now that rotations have ceased, the same criticisms are there. Striking the right balance is not easy. But it is important.

Zidane’s vision can often be hard to decipher. What he rightfully will care about the most is winning, and doing it regularly — with shiny rewards at the end of the season. Everything else comes secondary. I have long been vocal that ‘too much depth’ is not a ‘good problem’ — it’s literally a problem. Luka Modric has rewarded Zidane’s faith with some incredible, much-needed two-way performances in midfield. But Zidane’s reward system has its flaws. He has pleaded the media for patience with Eden Hazard’s performances, yet has not held that same standard with other talented players like Odegaard. Defense, something Odegaard struggles with (he is an elite presser and below-average tracker) is important to Zidane — but he keeps a long leash for Marco Asensio’s defensive mistakes.

Zidane won’t give up on the Casemiro - Modric - Kroos tandem anytime soon. He may deviate from it (Fede started over Modric in multiple Clasicos), but there is always a tendency to dial it back to the OGs. How those three function together may make-or-break the team’s season, ride or die style. The trio have the best +/- of any Real Midfielders this season. (I generally don’t like that stat for football specifically, and it’s worth pointing out that the team was virtually unbeatable with Fede Valverde in the lineup last season.)

What happens next, is interesting, for all parties involved, including Arsenal.

Real Madrid v RC Celta - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Real Madrid’s depth chart is about to evaporate (even moreso in the short-term with news of Fede Valverde’s injury today). If there is a silver lining in this messy sequence of events, it’s that Isco and Fede win, or at least have the chance to gain momentum. On the flipside, if Odegaard starts flying in the Premier League, then five years from now we may look at his premature return from Real Sociedad as a blessing.

Odegaard is still so young, and has so much good football left to play. The club’s handling of him has been rocky, but hopefully for everyone involved, it will be inconsequential in his long run to greatness.

I’m not buying any noise that Odegaard will have uncertain playing time at Arsenal. From all reputable reports, Mikel Arteta had a long conversation with the Norwegian. Odegaard is not going to London to replicate his situation in Madrid. Arsenal are a mess, but with Thomas Partey strengthening that midfield, and now with the infusion of Odegaard’s brain, this is has the potential to be pretty fun. Some pockets of the fan base and media are perplexed — even upset — that Odegaard decided not to return to La Real. I think that ship has sailed with David Silva there. Arsenal’s willingness not have a buy-back option — something that Real Sociedad wanted to include — was a deal-breaker that club had to consider too.

(At least for loan-tracker purposes, Matt Wiltse and I are thankful that we don’t have to add a new club to the already infinite list of games we have to watch everyday.)

One thing to monitor: If Odegaard does well at Arsenal, nothing changes from a squad perspective next summer. Everyone Odegaard competes with will still be under contract (bar possibly Lucas Vazquez who occupies a spot in midfield and has not yet come to terms for an extension). Oh, and remember Gareth Bale? He’ll be back! Tottenham doing Real Madrid another favour holding onto him (for, let’s be honest, no good reason at this point) is no given. Odegaard at Arsenal is interesting, but it will be even more interesting to see how Real Madrid juggle the same problems next season.

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