Yesterday, Arsenal were linked with Real Madrid’s Martin Ødegaard as a potential loan target for this January. The rumor was backed up by The Athletic’s David Ornstein, but it’s well known that Arsenal are far from Ødegaard’s only suitor. The transfer itself is an interesting one because, in my opinion, it comes with some nuances that could make the deal good, great, or bad. Depending on whose side you view things from that changes.
At the very least, it feels right to ask some questions. Unlike some of the absurd accounts online that have come out immediately claiming they would be taking this deal, with an obligation to buy — not that that has really been suggested — there are a few reasons to at least pause as an outsider looking in.
I cannot help but feel there are two sides to this, possibly more. There’s the Arsenal side of getting him, then there is the aspects of what it would probably take to seal his signature, which is more Ødegaard’s side of this transfer.
Before I dive into the bits that I’m not sure many Arsenal fans will want to hear or think about, let me state upfront, loud and clear, that a loan deal like Ødegaard is theoretically exactly what Arsenal should be looking for this January window.
Ødegaard is 22, things went very well at Real Sociedad last season, haven’t gone well with Real Madrid this season, but he is a player that is looking to prove something and advance his career — unlike an aging, out of form player like an Isco or Eriksen. To add to that, he plays in the central attacking midfield position, essentially as a number 10 like Emile Smith Rowe, which is a position at Arsenal that needs quality reinforcement.
Smith Rowe has proven himself to be a great talent that needs care and nurturing, but with only six matches under his belt, his rise puts Arsenal’s rebuild in a precarious situation. Can they say definitively that he is someone who will be at the heart of Arsenal’s future? After six games that would feel premature, although his well-earned pay raise is more than justifiable. Or, does the club look to spend large money now on a player like Buendia potentially stunting Smith Rowe’s growth or proving to be a waste of £40m when Smith Rowe does in fact develop into the player everyone hopes he is? That feels like a poor idea too.
So, in the meantime, a short term loan deal within that position seems like the safest route to go. It’s low cost, relatively low risk, and offers a fail safe should Smith Rowe get hurt, or we find out this production isn’t sustainable across the second half of this season. That theoretically gives ESR time to develop and grow, a back up to push him on, and gives the club four more months to assess the role Smith Rowe has to play in their future, and how his presence shapes summer transfer business.
Did that all make sense? If so, you’re probably reading this thinking, “great so Ødegaard is the guy” and to that I would respond: sort of. A quality backup to Emile Smith Rowe is ‘the guy’, which is something Ødegaard could certainly be, but now we have to get into the conversation of whether or not Ødegaard WOULD BE ‘that back up guy’.
Ødegaard has gone to Real Madrid and requested to leave his club in January in search of “regular first team football”. It’s a phrase that is a bit elusive as far as a definitive definition, given that it changes person to person, but in Ødegaard’s case it probably resembles the time that he had at Real Sociedad a year ago where he made 36 appearances and played nearly 3000 minutes. It probably does not resemble a player getting to play one out of every three or four matches in a rotation.
This brings us back to Arsenal and what it would take to seal Ødegaard’s signature given the competition they have to capture his attention. Unlike permanent signings or long term deals, a club’s stature and history probably only count for so much — especially given Ødegaard is coming from Real Madrid — and salary probably isn’t a huge talking point since he has a contract. Obviously, being loaned to a better club looks good on your resume, but really it’s all about playing time. Given it’s a six-month loan, the idea of having to “fight” for playing time is probably a pretty large turnoff, especially against a young player that already has captured Gooners’ hearts.
Ødegaard has six months to show what he can do, six months to capture form, impress and shine, and six months to either land himself a transfer or return to Madrid. Coming to London and backing up Smith Rowe or rotating with him every three or four games? Pass.
That’s not “regular first team football”, it’s not an enticing offer that gives him a great shot at impressing, so why would he come here when other clubs are giving him an opportunity to waltz in and get immediate starter time?
To actually bring in Ødegaard, my belief, is Arsenal would have to offer him some pretty kind guarantees of his status in the team. Why? Because he wants regular first team football and rotating with Smith Rowe will only qualify if it is him that gets to play three out of every four matches, not Smith Rowe.
From Ødegaard’s perspective, Arsenal probably isn’t the most appealing destination if he has to fight for his spot. To be frank, he doesn’t have time to fight for that. And do Arsenal fans really want a loan fighting with Smith Rowe for time, obstructing Smith Rowe’s growth path and inevitably taking away Smith Rowe’s minutes for half a season?
Because it is pretty inevitable that if Arsenal are going to grant Ødegaard’s wish for “regular first team football”, it comes at the expense of Smith Rowe to some extent. There is not a world where the two split minutes equitably, even with 19 Premier League matches left, potentially some FA Cup matches, and however many Europa League matches remain for Arsenal. Someone absolutely becomes the backup, and from Arsenal’s perspective that backup should be whoever comes in on loan.
It leaves us with two conflicting sides — Ødegaard obviously possesses a great amount of talent and, likely the drive to make him a great candidate, but Arsenal either can’t offer him regular first team football, really, or have to at the expense of Smith Rowe’s minutes in that number 10 role, which should cause everyone to hesitate.
What about playing them together? What about playing them together.
If you’re playing them together you are either slotting one in on the right wing, which opens a whole other can of worms surrounding Saka, Pepe, and Willian, or you’re dabbling into a 4-3-3 shape with one holding midfielder, probably Partey, and Smith Rowe and Ødegaard in front of him. On paper that looks lovely, but I question whether it’s practical, or even achievable, in a four month time crunch. Arsenal are still trying to settle in Partey who has only just begun his matches with the Gunners — albeit splendidly — but there is nothing more than hints or potential glimpses of Thomas being able to anchor a midfield like that. Is that enough to warrant a loan? For that matter, is it worth it over a loan you may not have in 4 months?
Chances are, with an Ødegaard loan, someone goes home unhappy. Maybe Arsenal don’t care about that. They need results, Smith Rowe is the future, so you tell Ødegaard what he wants to hear up front and trap him in London as the backup. Sure, its possible. The club just deals with whatever repercussions come with that choice.
The difficult and defining decision is: how much are you willing to interfere with Smith Rowe’s growth, and is giving Ødegaard the regular first team football he demands from his loan, worth whatever it costs ESR? It doesn’t feel like Arsenal can appease both players in this situation, so if you value ESR’s growth more, than you should go find a different player that is in a situation where they are content with a fight for time, looking for an upgrade in club and competition stature, and willing to be a rotational backup for four months. That doesn’t seem like Ødegaard.