Ode to Odegaard

At time of writing, Arsenal are closing in on the signing of Martin Odegaard. By the time you read this, it might already be announced. I think this is Arsenal’s best business of the summer so far. They have a 22-year-old whom we know has elite talent. He didn’t have the opportunity to realise it at Real Madrid but we know it’s there. Real Madrid don’t sign 16-year-olds very often.

Arsenal’s team needs a talent restock. At the moment, there are two teams within this team. Roughly half look like really good players who know what they are doing and could easily be part of a project that sees the Gunners climb back into the Champions League places. The other half…..not so much. They need to slowly tip the talent scales of that starting eleven and it won’t happen overnight.

Like Arsenal, Manchester United have made a lot of mistakes in the transfer market in recent years. However, more recently, they have slowly been adding more talent to their core team, upgrading the level piece by piece. It doesn’t happen overnight, not even for United who have a lot more wealth at their disposal than Arsenal.

Some Arsenal fans feel a little underwhelmed by the Odegaard signing and I think that indifference stems from a few different places. Firstly, people feel pretty down on Arsenal generally, which is totally understandable and it impacts how we feel about everything the club does. There is also the argument that Odegaard was part of last season’s underachieving team and this is an argument I take umbrage with.

Arsenal were 11th in the table on the day that Odegaard joined on loan, they moved up three places and while nobody is breaking out the party hats for eighth place, his arrival and Arsenal’s improvement are related, in my view. The long and short of it is, the team’s number one priority for well over a year now has been to boost their creative options. Odegaard does that.

I can understand, too, that many Arsenal fans keep looking at the sum total of Arsenal’s business and asking whether it pushes the needle far enough. I think that’s a little unfair on Odegaard. If we think of every signing that way, no recruit will ever be good enough. There is never going to be one player that cures all of Arsenal’s ills.

It’s going to take some time to gradually lift the level of the team, player by player, brick by brick. Odegaard gets Arsenal closer to that in my view. He doesn’t take the team all of the way there; but no signing will do that. Maddison wouldn’t do that, Abraham wouldn’t. None of the players the club has been linked or can afford will do that. Odegaard gets Arsenal closer though.

He also does so at a really reasonable price, coming to a club where he really has something to prove and after a nomadic existence of loans and several different coaches at Madrid, he is ready to settle down somewhere and realise his potential. It’s worth pointing out that he really wanted to come to Arsenal.

Madrid never really made a home for him, at Arsenal he can be, literally and figuratively, a central player. Obviously, I cannot prove that he will break out in North London but I think the conditions are certainly there for it to happen. There are a number of ways in which I think Odegaard improves this team. Firstly, we know he can play in conjunction with Emile Smith Rowe.

Smith Rowe is excellent at providing wide overloads but Arsenal still lack centrality with him as the number 10. Smith Rowe can offer that on the left side, allowing Tierney an overlap. Odegaard gives the team greater central presence- as does Thomas Partey. Smith Rowe creates with his movement whereas Odegaard creates with his passing.

At Brentford last weekend, the approach play occasionally drifted into parody, as Xhaka teed up Tierney, who crossed to nobody. The left flank was all Arsenal had. When you add Odegaard and Partey, suddenly the team has a little more variety and an ability to pass through the thirds. Odegaard does like to drift towards the right too and this creates a nice symmetry with Smith Rowe, assuming he plays over on the left.

Now Arsenal has creative presence on both sides of the pitch and they don’t have to do their *Kent Brockman voice* “Xhaka passes to Tierney, Tierney crosses it, crosses it *sighs* crosses it….” rendition over and over. None of this is to say that Odegaard is the finished article, he isn’t. He provided two assists and one goal during his 14 Premier League games last season and those numbers must increase.

At Real Sociedad, his data was more impressive than it has been at Madrid, playing in a team where he was wanted and he was one of the main players. He will have a similar environment at Arsenal. I think it’s a little understandable if he didn’t always feel emboldened to try the killer pass in a Madrid shirt knowing that he wasn’t trusted.

I think Odegaard provides more than the headline numbers show too. Per FBRef, he averaged 2.19 passes that led to a shot per 90 minutes last season, the highest in the Arsenal squad- there is the potential for more assists there and there is no doubt that the onus is on him to realise it. I also like the fact that Odegaard can turn away from pressure so well, it’s a skill the likes of Partey, Smith Rowe and Saka have, that ability to flick the ball around the corner, evade a tackle and get Arsenal facing forwards.

I also happen to think that one of the quickest routes to improvement for Arsenal is to get Pierre Emerick Aubameyang scoring again. They have one of the best natural goal scorers in the league, it’s one of their biggest strengths and Arteta must exploit it. A trio of Smith Rowe, Saka and Odegaard behind Aubameyang tilts the attack more towards Auba’s strengths in my view- and that has to be a good thing. It’s difficult to imagine Arsenal having a good season if their captain languishes again.

Sometimes a player and a club meet at the right time. Arsenal are at a low ebb, out of Europe and crying out for greater fantasy in their play. Odegaard has spent some largely unsatisfying years at Madrid and (hopefully) will be keen to demonstrate the ability that made him a teenage sensation. This player, at this price, was, in my view, far above what the club should be able to do in the position they are in.

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