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Real Madrid’s sale of Martin Ødegaard: Everything that contributed to the club and player parting ways

Ødegaard and Real Madrid split ways after six years. How did we get here, and what’s next for both parties?

Internazionale v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Photo by Mattia Ozbot/Soccrates/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.

Six years ago, Real Madrid signed a 16-year old kid from Norway, striking a deal with Norwegian club Strømsgodset to bring in a talent who was relatively unknown outside his own country. But inside Noway, he was a phenomenon.

One year prior, Martin Ødegaard had become the youngest player to ever play in the Norwegian league, Tippeligaen. Within months, still at the age of 15, Norwegian legend John Arne Riise pleaded for Ødegaard to be called up to the national team. By the end of his first season, still 15, Ødegaard became the youngest goalscorer in Norway’s top flight, and helped Strømsgodset qualify for the Europa League by getting them to a fourth-place finish as the team’s key cog. He was the focal point, the orchestrator. A small kid that played like a 27-year old vet.

Ødegaard is now 22, though it feels like he already has a long history with Real Madrid despite not playing many official games for the club. He has bounced around three countries and five different teams while under contract at Real Madrid. His progression and development, though turbulent at times, was encouraging throughout his loan stints and youth team appearances. He is still on course to be an important player for a good European team. But this morning, both Real Madrid and Arsenal made it official: Ødegaard, for the first time since 2015, will not be a Real Madrid player, and all parties involved have agreed that Arsenal — a club that Ødegaard initially visited as a 15-year-old — will now be home for The Norwegian.

And the frustration (and disappointment, perplexity, and so on) from many Real Madrid fans, especially those who followed him over the years, watching him grow from his Castilla days until now, stems from the fact that Ødegaard was about to start his eighth season as a Real Madrid player, and yet, amassed just 11 first-team appearances total. He leaves at a time where Real Madrid’s midfield — despite still rocking the legendary Casemiro - Kroos - Modric trio — is paper thin. Toni Kroos will start the season sidelined for at least the first month. Modric suffered an injury in training this week and will be out for at least the next match against Levante. Dani Ceballos, if he stays, is also nursing a major injury. And even if everyone is healthy, the big picture reality is that Modric needs rest, Isco is on the last year of his contract, and Ødegaard has (had) a chance to transition himself as an important midfielder, possessing assets the team desperately needs: positioning between the lines, vertical passing, elite pressing, efficiency in transition, and better ball progression.

And that he doesn’t have that opportunity now is not the club’s fault. Ødegaard chose not to fight at Real Madrid. And perhaps that’s where some of the frustration from fans stems from. If there was a belief in him, a supportive fan base that patiently waited for him to return and receive the torch, kiss the badge, and cry i Hala Madrid ! — that feeling was not reciprocated. Maybe fans wanted Ødegaard to love the club the way they do, or the way Lucas Vazquez and Nacho did. They wanted the Norwegian to put his head down and wait for his time the way Fede Valverde did. There are too many ‘what ifs’ in this twisting tale, and the ending to the chapter feels, in many ways, unsatisfying.

There is another side to this story, and that is the club’s perspective. Real Madrid, initially, were not interested in selling Ødegaard, per source, nor were they actively shopping him. The priority was to clip the roster in other ways, by selling fringe players like Isco, Luka Jovic, Mariano Diaz, and others. Three things happened: 1) The offers for those players never arrived; 2) Ødegaard had higher market value and a club that wanted him (and a club the player pushed to play for, which accelerated the process); and 3) while Real Madrid were happy to keep Ødegaard as a future asset, they didn’t truly value him that highly, and certainly didn’t care enough about his footballing abilities to force a player that doesn’t want to play for them to stay. Real Madrid have never acted desperately in those situations. It’s not in their nature. They focus on those who buy into the club’s project, and itch to play for them. Everyone else is expendable, and Ødegaard was not transcendent enough to break that rule.

Of course, there is the fourth point, a terribly kept secret: Real Madrid are happy to gut the roster (for one, because they had to regardless) and put every penny they can towards two (yes, two, not just one) superstars: Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe. I will cross the bridge when the time is right, but there is a realistic scenario where both of those players will be wearing a Real Madrid shirt in 2022, and the club is banking on it. There is a method to this selling madness.

And the club is not necessarily wrong to think this way. Losing Ødegaard stings, but you can piece it together around Haaland and Mbappe, and Real Madrid also believe in a solid generation of Castilla players — the best they’ve had in years.

(As a side note, Antonio Blanco, perhaps even moreso than Isco, is the biggest winner of the evaporation of Real Madrid’s midfield.)

It’s important to remember that Real Madrid is not going to get every decision bang on. They have not been flawless in the transfer market. Contracts given to Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale have handcuffed them. They have sold many talented players, and Ødegaard is the latest to be filed away in the drawer, preceded by Marcos Llorente, Mateo Kovacic, Sergio Reguilon, Achraf Hakimi, and others. The club detaches itself from what happens once the decision is made. Kovacic, like Ødegaard, was more interested in being in London. Llorente, like Ødegaard, wanted to increase his chances of playing time during a critical age that could dictate an entire career. Reguilon and Achraf, admittedly, were not given the choice to fight at all. They were sold without being consulted with, full-stop. In the cases of both, they brought the club significant revenue in a time where displacing Real Madrid’s current wing-backs is difficult to do.

Real Madrid did not come out of these transactions unscathed. They lost several young players that could’ve helped them for almost an entire upcoming decade. Finding a player like Ødegaard will cost more than the 35m they sold him for (unless they hold out for a free agent next summer like Eduardo Camavinga, who will still have a high signing fee and salary), and Ødegaard’s value would’ve likely been much higher in two years plus if the club had held on to him. But not all is lost. Apart from Kovacic (purchased from Inter Milan for €29m), the aforementioned players were free. As Matt Wiltse posted Wednesday on Twitter, Real Madrid’s total capital gains from selling young players over the past two-three years: €185M.

Ødegaard is a very good player, and Real Madrid recognize that. But their valuation of him is not as high as the stock many fans held the Norwegian to. Real Madrid may also worry about Ødegaard’s health. Since his injury mid-season in ‘19-20, he has yet to hit the apex he hit at Real Sociedad. Ødegaard can still get there, and though Arsenal are a tactical mess under Mikel Arteta, they have a system that will coddle him and play him in his preferred position. By selling at 35m, Real Madrid also keep the door open through a first right of refusal, and their financial outlook in a few years’ time is positive enough that they should be able to match a good offer if Ødegaard becomes that transcendent player. (Though Ødegaard himself can single-handedly veto that right of refusal by declining to return.)

At some point, Ødegaard has to look at competition as a healthy thing. He cannot escape players breathing down his neck forever. What happens if he fulfills his promise as a footballer and joins one of the top-five clubs in Europe? Will he ask to leave again if another great player is signed? Even Manchester City has great attacking midfielders that are displaceable. Unless Ødegaard plans on dodging top clubs his whole life in order to be a bigger fish in a small pond — in which case, perhaps that’s not the player you want to build a midfield around.

There are no rights or wrongs in this discussion. Real Madrid and its fans (and not all fans were enamoured with Ødegaard, it should be noted) had the right to feel a certain way. Ødegaard is doing nothing wrong by choosing his own path. He is in his right to be more interested at Arsenal, where he can focus on his own personal development by playing regularly at a high level in a team that believes in him, and for a manager that he loves. The importance of the #10 role (and hybrid versions of it, by extension) at Real Madrid has varied based on who the manager is. Isco’s playing time has withered over the course of three seasons. A player’s career can flash by before you know it. Look at Mariano Diaz, who is somehow 28 years old. Players should pursue their own interests if they want. The career arch of a footballer is relatively short.

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

One narrative that has been overblown: That Zinedine Zidane and Carlo Ancelotti didn’t believe in Martin Ødegaard. What were they supposed to do? Ancelotti hasn’t had the chance, and all he indicated to the Norwegian was that his place wasn’t guaranteed (and he’s right). Zidane, for all the criticism he took, started Ødegaard in the first two games of last season. Ødegaard was fine, displaced on merit but fluctuated in and out of the lineup and had a good game against Inter Milan in the Champions League in the fall. I have long been opposed to the idea that ‘Ødegaard failed to impress’. Uh, he played a handful of games. He did not light it up, but connected well with Toni Kroos in Real Madrid’s build-up and moved well between the lines and worked hard off the ball. It took Sergio Ramos and Marcelo years to become what they were. What did we expect?

Zidane benching Ødegaard was not a vendetta. He kept Kovacic on the fringes before giving him an important role. Ødegaard coming in and out of the lineup in his first season with the club is routine for a young player. It did not justify sending him out on loan mid-season, and the club could’ve used him beyond January. (The counter to all this, of course, was that the club decided to bring Ødegaard back from Real Sociedad early, which was a silly decision at the time, and even more silly now. The butterfly effect of him staying at La Real one more year is intriguing to think about.)

If there is another Ødegaard chapter at Real Madrid, it likely won’t be anytime soon. For now, club and player part ways, having seen each other just 11 times despite the seven-year marriage. Real Madrid have a plethora of young players, and one certain Fede Valverde, which they can fall back on to sleep easy tonight. If the fee from this morning’s sale gets them their prized Haaland - Mbappe dyad, they’ll move on quickly.

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