Thursday, May 30, 2024

Changing of the Odegaard

Since his £35m arrival from Real Madrid, it is fair to say that Martin Odegaard’s Arsenal career hasn’t quite got going yet. It’s too early to panic, of course. When Arsenal forked out that level of cash, they were, in my view, buying the player that Odegaard can become rather than the player that he currently is.

So far, he has one goal and no assists to show for seven starts and four substitute appearances. He lost his place to Alex Lacazette for four games recently but I don’t necessarily think that was an indictment of him so much as Lacazette briefly boosting the team in the withdrawn striker role. Odegaard and Lacazette interpret the role in different ways.

Lacazette is a withdrawn striker and Odegaard is an advanced midfielder, which means they approach similar angles but from very different panoramas. Lacazette’s starting position is the edge of the penalty area, Odegaard’s is the centre circle. Lacazette’s all-action pressing style is the sledgehammer to the Norwegian’s scalpel.

Yet with no assists and an XA (expected assists) of 0.07 per 90, it’s fair to say that Odegaard hasn’t been prizing defences open. There is some mitigation in the fact that he has been asked to play in a slightly deeper role on occasion due to the absence of Granit Xhaka and the absence of Xhaka could provide some explanation as to his lack of impact in the final third to date.

A Xhaka-Partey-Odegaard trio has a very clear delineation when it comes to ball progression. Sambi Lokonga interprets the role slightly differently to Xhaka and maybe there have been some teething issues in giving Odegaard the service he craves so he can, in turn, supply the forwards. Odegaard’s passing numbers, listed below, are all currently at career low levels except for his passes into the penalty area per 90 (at Real Madrid in the first half of the 2020-21 season, he was posting 0.77 per 90).

Passes completed per 90Passes attempted per 90Pass completion per 90Total pass distance per 90Progressive distance per 90Passes into the final third per 90Passes into the penalty area per 90Passes that lead to a shot per 90

During the second half of last season at Arsenal, he was posting five progressive passes per 90 and this season it’s down to 3.84. Again, some of that data will be skewed by the occasions when he was asked to play in a deeper role. Odegaard came back into the team against Newcastle and, in my opinion, played pretty well, especially in the second half.

Sometimes we over-simplify the job description for a number 10. Assists are the greatest currency, of course, but much like a number six, a number 10’s job is really to glue different sections of the team together. Your six and your 10 are the connective tissue of the team, the six is the bridge between defence and midfield, while the 10 is supposed to provide a conduit from midfield to attack.

A lot of that work doesn’t really show up in the metrics and it’s not especially eye catching either. While Mesut Özil was revered for and judged on his assist stats (which were, admittedly, often impressive) I think what Arsenal really missed when he was exiled from the team was his economy in possession.

He simply never wasted the ball and had an eye for the nooks and crannies in the field, the spaces in which to make himself available for the pass. A good number 10 is a release valve for his teammates and, as we saw with Odegaard last season, in an attacking sense, it’s often just as valuable to find the pass before the final pass. It is not always the final pass that truly breaks the move open.

I think there is also an argument that sixes and 10s ought to be the last players that a coach adds to a functioning team. I’m not convinced that a 10 single handedly elevates a team, I think they accentuate what is already there. Think of Gilberto Silva, the number six for the Invincibles, he was the final outfield player added to that team and, frankly, he completed it. I think Özil underwhelmed some people because he wasn’t completing a team, he was asked to be the first real brick in the rebuild.

Odegaard is in a bit of a holding pattern until the forward line changes. Lacazette will leave this summer, Aubameyang the following summer and I can’t imagine that Nicolas Pepe will win another Arsenal contract. Odegaard will certainly be asked to work with Saka and Emile Smith Rowe (you said their names to the tune of ‘Rocking All Over the World’, didn’t you?) but the striker remains a question mark.

Following his second Arsenal debut in the League Cup at West Brom in August, Arteta said of Odegaard, “He needs players around him to follow and understand him because the moment he has time on the ball he’s a real threat. He glides players together. He attracts players. He’s really confident on the ball. He can take the ball anywhere on the pitch and he gives us that continuity.”

Odegaard’s career stalled at Real Madrid but now he is with a club that really wants him and where he has a medium-term future, at the very least. He has to start building some of those understandings and I think there was evidence of that in the Newcastle game, particularly with his chopped passes to Tomiyasu at right-back (Odegaard passed to Tomiyasu 11 times, more than he passed to any other teammate)- the way he finds an overlapping full-back was a key feature of his masterful performance in last season’s 3-3 draw at West Ham.

It’s unfortunate for him that the relatively stable Xhaka and Partey partnership has been disrupted behind him. Aubameyang is a pure penalty box striker and coming short to link play is not a significant part of his game. I am not even sure Auba runs on the shoulder of the last defender either, his game is built more on sniffing out cut-backs and wide deliveries. Özil and Aubameyang didn’t have a particularly explosive on-field relationship either.

Odegaard passed to Auba just once on Saturday, with Auba returning the favour on a single occasion, though Thomas Partey found the Norwegian 13 times and that connection will be crucial in Martin becoming a more prominent member of this attack. Odegaard had four shot creating actions in the same game, which Emile Smith Rowe and Albert Sambi Lokonga doubled.

As he becomes more confident in the supply line from Partey and, eventually, Xhaka, (or indeed, until he builds more of a relationship with Sambi Lokonga), Odegaard can and should take up more advanced spaces and resist the urge to drop deep to collect the ball. He is good at finding spaces, especially in the right pocket, as we saw on Saturday. It is fair to say that this is an interesting period for him, having won his place back in the team, Arteta will want to see more from his star signing.

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