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11th Oct 2019

Dismissed as a ‘flop’ while still a teen, Martin Odegaard remains on the road to the top

Simon Lloyd

The young Norwegian’s early season form at Real Sociedad has already sparked talk of a return to Madrid

It was Mikel Oyarzabal who scored Real Sociedad’s opener as they hosted Alavés at the newly revamped Anoeta Stadium last month. And yet, as footage of his goal swept across the continent, that fact might easily have been overlooked.

While Oyarzabal had indeed applied the finishing touch, it was the pass that made his goal possible which prompted the hype that followed. 

Martin Odegaard had received the ball after darting into a pocket of space midway through the Alavés half. With his back to goal, he had turned sharply, flicked the ball between the legs of Tomás Pina, then angled a perfectly weighted pass through the heart of the opposition backline and into Oyarzabal’s path. It was a moment of sublime quality; more evidence of the Norwegian’s near-seamless reintegration into Spanish football after his two-and-a-half-year absence.

Odegaard arrived in San Sebastián in the summer, signing for Sociedad on a two-year loan from Real Madrid. By the time he faced Alavés with his new club, his performances had already caught the eye. A first goal had come in just his second start, sealing victory away to Mallorca. Weeks later, he capped an impressive individual display against Atletico Madrid by scoring again. As well as providing two assists in the early weeks of the season, he has averaged 2.7 key passes per game – only Toni Kroos and Santi Cazorla (both on 3.3) have posted higher figures in LaLiga this term. 

Early season promise has seen Odegaard voted Sociedad fans’ player of the month for August and named the league’s best player for September. It has also given rise to speculation that Florentino Perez might contemplate ending his spell in the Basque Country prematurely so that he can return to Madrid. For now, that seems out of the question, but the very fact it is being discussed in the media is a measure of how far he has come since his last outing for Los Blancos.

Ludicrously, there’s a popular belief that Odegaard – still just 20 years of age – has already failed as a Real Madrid player, wilting under the searing spotlight he was cast under when he arrived from Strømsgodset shortly after his 16th birthday. This is partly explained by the intensive publicity his move to the Bernabéu generated. Aged 15, he was already a star in his homeland, breaking records to become the youngest player to play in the Norwegian top flight and to represent the national team. A move to one of Europe’s stellar clubs seemed certain as he was invited to train with Arsenal, Liverpool, both Manchester clubs and Bayern Munich. In the end he chose Real, the plan being that he would play regularly for their Castilla side while being able to develop by training alongside their first team stars on a weekly basis.

This was largely the case for his first two years as a Real Madrid player, though he did manage two appearances in the senior side. In May 2015, he famously replaced Cristiano Ronaldo as a substitute in the final home game of the season, his half-hour run out against Getafe enough for him to become the youngest debutant in Real’s long and storied history. His second – and last – outing came over a year later, starting a Copa del Rey fixture with Cultural Leonesa in November 2016.

Though it was never the intention for him to play regularly for Real’s first team in his early years at the club, the fact he did not saw him harshly labelled as a ‘flop’ by some media outlets. At just 18, a narrative that a career that had promised so much was fading into mediocrity was beginning to crystallise.

In January 2017 Odegaard was loaned out by Real for the first time. An 18-month deal with Heerenveen was agreed. Playing in the Netherlands would, it was hoped, nurture Odegaard’s technical ability while providing him with ample opportunities for first team football. Though goals never really came for him during his time there, his gradual improvement convinced Heerenveen’s Eredivisie rivals Vitesse Arnhem to secure his services on loan for the 2018/19 season. Chelsea’s Mason Mount had played for Vitesse the previous campaign, his 14 goals making him an integral part of their squad. As Mount departed for another loan spell at Derby County, it was hoped Odegaard would help fill the void he left by the Englishman.

He didn’t disappoint. Establishing himself as a regular starter in the early weeks of the season, Odegaard enjoyed his most successful season by a distance. By the end of it, he had scored nine goals for the club and assisted 12 more. On average, he produced 3.5 key passes per game. Like Mount before him, he had become a hugely important cog in the Vitesse machine.

The Dutch season was dominated by Ajax, who secured a league and cup double for the first time in 16 years. Inspired by Frankie de Jong’s intelligence and wit in the middle of the park, the Amsterdam club also came agonisingly close to reaching the Champions League final. Such was Odegaard’s impact at Vitesse, it was briefly suggested that Ajax might attempt to sign him with De Jong departing for Barcelona in the summer. Such speculation was soon dismissed. Having monitored his progress closely, Real Madrid decided it was time to bring Odegaard back to Spain.

His move to Sociedad works for all parties. Odegaard, more mature for his stint in Dutch football, will be provided with ample opportunities to continue his progress in a league he intends to play in for the majority of his career while his parent club can keep close tabs on his performances against more relevant opposition. Sociedad, as they have already found, will benefit from being able to call on one of European football’s most exciting young playmakers.

Should the remainder of his time in San Sebastian run as smoothly as it has to date, it seems inevitable that Odegaard will be summoned to return to Real Madrid. After finally losing their Champions League crown last season, Zinedine Zidane has inherited a team in transition after his return to the Bernabéu. Luka Modrić, a mainstay in the sides that won four out of a possible five European Cups, is now 34 and quite possibly in his final season in white. There are no certainties that James Rodriguez or Isco will do enough to convince Zidane they are worthy of a regular starting berth beyond next May. There is every chance that Real may require fresh blood in midfield in the near future and suddenly, Odegaard appears in an excellent place to seize the opportunity.