If you don’t track the flight of a player do they simply continue to circle the sky, never land, and never get announced?
Arsenal fans weren’t willing to find out this time around, tracking his every move, as everyone waited with bated breath for Arsenal to officially announce the signing of Real Madrid’s Martin Ødegaard on loan.
That wait came to a close, yesterday, as Arsenal confirmed him as the newest Gunner.
From there, Arsenal released the pretty standard player confirmation content — his first interview…
…And a nice 6 minute clip of him going through an introductory session alongside Kieran Tierney who is working his way toward fitness, hoping to play this weekend, and Real Madrid teammate, and fellow loanee, Dani Ceballos.
All the good stuff. All the fun stuff. But what people really want to know is how they should feel about the loan, what aspects they should be keeping and eye on, where he fits, and what he offers.
I have already written a pieces about the loan selection from a squad building perspective, mostly with an emphasis on questioning how it will effect Smith Rowe’s continued growth this season, written at a point when it was still uncertain whether or not Ødegaard would come to Arsenal. The Smith Rowe aspect is certainly a concern I still have, and I think many should also be thinking about, but the burden of that balances rests on Arteta’s shoulders now.
We are simply left to speculate how that balance will work until we see it in action or Arteta makes a clear statement on the matter. What’s interesting is the wide array of Arsenal fan speculations on the matter, often contradicting themselves. From, “he won’t interfere with Smith Rowe at all” to “he is going to give Arsenal a chance at the top four”.
If he is not interfering with ESR, then he is a rotational figure that will make appearances every 3 or 4 matches. If that’s the case, it seems a bit of a stretch to suggest he would have the level of influence needed to give the Gunners top four. If he is more than a rotational figure, than I am not sure how a person argues his signing doesn’t block Smith Rowe’s progress for the next 5 months. Just food for thought.
To make matters more difficult, Arsenal bowed out of another competition this past weekend which leaves them with only 19 Premier League matches and as many Europa League matches as they earn themselves. If things don’t go well versus Benfica in the Europa League, the density of Arsenal’s schedule nearly evaporates, reducing the need for as much rotation, and offering less matches for the two attacking midfielders to split, should they both be deployed as 10’s in a 4-2-3-1.
If you scan the internet for fan reviews of Ødegaard they run the gamut from “unreal, Arsenal have saved their season” to “why, would we get him and obstruct Smith Rowe completely”. The reality is that Ødegaard’s value probably lies very much in the middle. The usage of superlatives like “unreal” probably apply far too much hype to a player that is very much real and had very real reasons for not making the cut when it came to Real Madrid this season.
Of course that doesn’t make those saying he is a hardly a solution to any need correct either. Ødegaard definitely offers Arteta options for the remainder of the year, and in this footballing life, options are the name of the game. In fact, given Arsenal’s need for a savvy solution that didn’t break the bank and offered Arsenal a quality that could perceivably compete and excel at Premier League level, they have possibly landed themselves an exceptional player.
So, what in Ødegaard’s game offers Arteta options? Let’s take a look. These stats all come from FBref.com where I compared Ødegaard’s loan with Real Sociedad to Ozil’s 2019/20 Arsenal campaign, Emile Smith Rowe’s current Arsenal season, and Ødegaard’s current Real Madrid season.
Here is a link to that comparison if you want the data for yourself.
Ødegaard’s current Real Madrid season hasn’t gone to plan, in large part because of how great Modric has been, so the thought behind the comparison of Ødegaard to ESR, Ozil, and himself, was to compare his production to two attacking midfielders that Arsenal fans are very familiar with, and put them side-by-side with the Ødegaard every Arsenal fan hopes we get — his time at Real Sociedad — and the Ødegaard of this season that has struggled with Madrid in limited minutes. From that, we can grab a few takeaways.
Left foot dominance
Meant mostly as a joke, the internet lit up with comments about Arsenal replacing MÖ with MØ — Ozil with Ødegaard if that wasn’t clear — which was, honestly, a significantly closer comparison to make than many people probably believed when they latched onto the trend.
There are plenty of parallels between the the two midfielders, even in comparing Ødegaard’s time at Real Sociedad on loan and Ozil’s 2019-20 campaign with Arsenal.
The most obvious comparison is the left-footed dominance. Ødegaard plays almost exclusively with this left foot. When it comes to his passing, Ødegaard attempts 57-67 passes per game and over 90% of them come from his left foot. This is right in line with Ozil’s left foot usage (87%), but a point of contrast from Emile Smith Rowe who uses his preferred right foot for only about 70% of his passes.
Why is this important or worth noting? A few reasons, mostly to do with the spaces the Ødegaard occupies. Between his time as CM, CAM, and RW, Ødegaard often occupied those spaces to the right of the center and between the lines, or where a tucked in right winger would be. This is another similarity to Ozil who liked to occupy those same areas, but that’s not all that unusual. Emile Smith Rowe looks to get into those areas to help create an overload on the right, find pockets of space to get on the ball, or force a defender to track him which leaves a hole in the center for others to exploit.
What will be a key aspect to keep an eye on, is how his left-foot favoritism effects those around him. A common speculation when Ozil filled that role and Pepe played the right wing was that Arsenal had two left-footed players that wanted to cut in on their preferred foot and serve a ball, but none that offered a lot of danger overlapping to the outside and driving toward the endline with their right foot. It produced a pretty stagnant, predictable effect and allowed defenders to cheat in their positioning and cut off those left-footed angles. With Bukayo Saka occupying that right wing role, the situation would be quite similar. A left-footed winger with a left-footed attacking midfielder.
As a pro to this aspect of Ødegaard’s game, we have seen how devastating a well struck, in-swinging ball can be from that side when it only needs a slight bit of connection from forwards to steer it on frame with pace. Ozil has delivered plenty, and so has Pepe. This left-footed favoritism also lets Ødegaard get on the ball, turn, and drive toward goal with his favorite foot, putting himself in between the ball and the defender as he scans for that killer pass or shot.
Which brings us to his next aspect: vision.
Excellent vision and ability to pick out the decisive pass
We can talk about plenty of aspects to Ødegaard’s game, but the one that really matters, and the reason that Arsenal were so interested in him, has to be his creativity, vision, and ability to pick out the decisive pass. As an attacking midfielder, especially someone that plays that ten role, it’s what makes or breaks you.
In Arsenal’s case, it’s a skill set that was missing from the side for the first half of the season, but has resurfaced through Smith Rowe and put Arsenal back to winning ways.
When it came to Ødegaard’s time at Real Sociedad, he averaged 0.18xA/90 (expected assists), but outperformed that mark by registering 0.21 assists per match. This equated to 6 assists for Real Sociedad. Comparatively, Ozil registered 0.14xA/90 in his 2019/20 campaign, and Smith Rowe has registered 0.25A/90 this season, putting Ødegaard somewhere in the middle. However, it should be noted that ESR is wildly outperforming his expected assist numbers and actually tallying over an assist every other match, which is an astounding bit of form.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s not let assists and expected assists control our whole narrative around Ødegaard. His vision, dribbling, and ability to create opportunities for others are excellent and the numbers back it up.
As a dribbler, he outstrips Smith Rowe and Ozil by a mile completing over two dribbles a game at Real Sociedad with a 67% success rate. At the end of his 28 complete matches played, he had tallied a very impressive 63/94 dribbles. It’s this positive intent and ability to dribble and draw in defenders that leads to him creating opportunities for others.
When it comes to actions per match that lead to a shot, or shot-creating actions (SCA), Ødegaard averaged 4.13 SCA while at Real Sociedad and even managed 2.31 SCA in his little time with Madrid this season. It’s a very impressive mark when compared to Ozil’s 3.94 SCA and Smith Rowe’s 3.06 SCA this season.
To take it one step further, Ødegaard registered 0.53 goal-creating actions (GCA) with Real Sociedad, which are the two actions that directly lead to a goal such as passes, dribbles, or drawing fouls. This sits below ESR’s wildly impressive 0.77 GCA but Smith Rowe has that across 5.2 complete matches, where as Ødegaard sustained his level of play over 28 matches.
It’s someone creating these shooting opportunities that Arsenal really needed early in the year, especially when it came to getting Aubameyang back in form. For much of the season, Auba struggled to get service, and when his form dipped, he wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunities that did come his way. Things have looked better with Smith Rowe, so many will hope including Ødegaard in some capacity continues to give Aubameyang and everyone else in that attacking front more shooting opportunities.
Ødegaard’s capacity to create these chances comes from his ability to read the game, assess when to pick out the pass or when to run at defenders, and then finish plays off by finding a teammate. It’s something he really excels.
How many times this year have you been disappointed in Arsenal’s contentedness to retreat and retain possession with backwards passes? Similarly, how may times have you complimented Thomas Partey and Emile Smith Rowe for their dedication to take progressive first touches, keep their head up, and spur on the attack? Even Xhaka has been much better at it lately, taking full advantage of transition opportunities against Southampton earlier this week.
The third aspect of Ødegaard’s attacking play that plenty of people will be glad to see is how progressive of a player he is. This may be slightly contestable considering he spent some minutes as more of an attacking midfielder in a number 8 role vs. a true 10, but his progressive numbers are still a point of promise.
At Real Sociedad he averaged 160 yards of progressive dribbling per 90 minutes. Comparatively, Mesut Ozil’s 2019/20 campaign saw him average 134.9 yards of progressive ball carrying, while Emile Smith Rowe is only carrying it about 92 yards. Even at Real Madrid, where many of Ødegaard’s numbers often took a significant hit, he registered an average of 140.8 yards carried per 90 minutes.
It’s fair to say that what really matters for a true 10 is their progressive passing. In those tight spaces, between the lines, are attacking midfielders able to turn toward goal and advance to ball. In Ødegaard’s case — absolutely.
With 245.9 yards of progressive passing and 7.22 progressive passes that go further than 10 yards per 90 minutes, Ødegaard’s time at Real Sociedad eclipses Ozil’s 210.9 yards and 5.5 passes, and ESR’s 114.8 yards and 3.27 passes by quite some margin. It’s worth mentioning that within the small scale of Ødegaard’s Real Madrid time, these numbers do dip closer to where Ozil and ESR’s numbers are which could be indicative of a boost from the slightly different role Ødegaard played at times with Sociedad.
Even with that, it’s clear that Ødegaard wants to get on the ball, wants to push the ball forward, and wants to be a part of the attack. Combining this progressive play with the vision talked about above is what earned him a lot of attention last season.
Defending is probably the one aspect in which the jury is still out. Not only because Ødegaard’s numbers tell a different story than some people who have observed him play, but because Emile Smith Rowe’s defensive workrate has been so impressive and so effective, that it’s fair to be concerned about what happens if Arteta removes that defensive influence from the mix.
When it comes to the numbers, Ødegaard had an impressive 18 pressures per 90 minutes, 1.53 tackles and interceptions per 90, 1 tackle, 8.22 recoveries while he was at Real Sociedad. However, those numbers take a pretty drastic hit when you look at his time with Real Madrid this year. Is that because Real Madrid plays a game in which they possess the ball more? A style in which he isn’t asked to defend as much? Or is it a mixture of both? What we can’t tell, is how that is going to translate for Arsenal.
The optimist in me says that his 18 pressures and 8 recoveries from Real Sociedad lend themselves to Arteta’s demands exceptionally well. The hesitant, concerned side of me fears that his play lies somewhere in between the Sociedad numbers and the Madrid numbers which will results in another 10, much like Ozil off the ball, that covers distance, corrals attackers around, but doesn’t yield those fantastic results we are seeing from Emile Smith Rowe. It’s ESR’s results that are helping to produce opportunities to exploit the opposition on the counter.
As with many things regarding Martin Ødegaard, only time will tell — and it is important to talk about time. Ødegaard is on a very short term loan, but he also hasn’t played a complete 90 minute match in over 6 months. In fact, he has barely played over 350 minutes this season in all competitions for Real Madrid. Both Arteta and Ødegaard will have to find a way to strike a fantastic balance between getting him involved so that he can show what he can do, but not over doing it right out the gates. Likewise, fans will have to get themselves into a very patient mindset.
Remember, much of this loan’s purpose was to offer Emile Smith Rowe backup, competition, and support. I am still a little leery on how this will shape out in a fashion that doesn’t invade on Smith Rowe’s growth, but until we see how Arsenal strike a balance between with the two, we may not be capable of passing full judgment.
There are plenty of people discussing the potential for Arsenal to play a 4-3-3 that features both Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Ødegaard, with a Thomas Partey midfield base. Again, it’s something I flip-flop on back and forth. On paper it sounds great! There are glimpses of Partey’s game, ESR’s game, and Ødegaard’s time at Sociedad that suggest it could but done, but I’m not sure it’s something we will see during these four months.
Arsenal are trying to settle in Partey, which is going splendidly, but he has only played 10 matches in all competitions so far for Arsenal. They are also trying to allow Smith Rowe to find a groove, and now they are going to try to work Ødegaard into things. Combine all that, on top of changing the full team’s formation and way of playing, during a season where Arsenal need every game to go well if they want any chance of making something of this year? It all seems a bit too much to expect them to roll out.
Maybe it’s something we see late in the season against teams that Arsenal expect to dominate the ball against, but it is certainly a formation that removes some of the defensive shield, it changes who forms Arsenal’s attacking 5 when they progress into the 2-3-5 shape in that phase of play, and it likely changes a few other aspects of where Arsenal’s wingers end up in the attack as well.
On paper it looks great, but I wouldn’t hold your breath for it. I expect Arsenal to continue with the 4-2-3-1 shape and find ways to rotate ESR and Ødegaard, or Ødegaard and the wings.
Overall, given the financial constraints and situation Arsenal were in, you can’t ask for a better bit of raw talent to walk through the door. Being a loan, Ødegaard checks a lot of boxes when it comes to low cost, low commitment, and high upside potential, but it now comes down to him and Arteta to find a way to make this loan spell as effective as it can be. Between them, and how they shape this, it with either be okay, good, or great.
Patience my Gooners, it just may take a second to get him going now that he is here.