September 27, 2021

Arsenal transfer analysis: Martin Odegaard signing could make or break Mikel Arteta’s North London tenure

Mikel Arteta has not appeared to be in the best of moods in his recent meetings with the media, but even the increasingly taciturn Arsenal manager could not suppress a smile when asked to discuss his new signing, Martin Odegaard.

The club announced the return of Odegaard, who had spent the second half of last season on loan from Real Madrid, just a few minutes before Arteta’s press conference ahead of Arsenal’s home game against Chelsea. The specifics of the deal have not been confirmed but sources have indicated to CBS Sports that the Gunners will pay up to $35 million for the 22 year old, who has signed a four year contract with the option for a further 12 months.

Odegaard will not be available for Sunday’s game — his visa is still being finalized — but the Norwegian is held in such high esteem by his new manager that it is surely a matter of time before he is at the heart of Arsenal’s plan.

“He made us better. We needed more options, alternatives, creativity and players that can be models in this football club,” said Arteta. “He is still a really young man but he has huge experience in different clubs already and he has a unique talent for the way we want to play.

“I am delighted that the club has made an effort and we now have Martin in a permanent deal here.”

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In listing Odegaard’s attributes and personal qualities, the Spaniard could have been reeling off a list of the qualities that Arsenal have been lacking under their current manager. This is the player Arteta has been waiting for.

All of which raises the question, how did it take Arsenal so long to get him back? It was May 23 when he made the final start of his loan spell, nearly three months passed by without securing a permanent deal. Fundamentally the delay in securing Odegaard’s return reflects the fact that only one of the three parties that had agency in this transfer really knew what they wanted.

Odegaard was torn between a desire for regular football and the chance to eventually succeed Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in the Real Madrid engine room. How long could he wait? What would it mean for his development if he sat it out at the Santiago Bernabeu and could he be sure that when the time came Florentino Perez would not find himself looking elsewhere as has so often been the case?

He made clear at the start of the summer that his dream was to establish himself at Real Madrid but equally he never closed the door on a return to north London.  

Given the choice, there were other players Madrid would have liked to move on ahead of the Norwegian. He still has his admirers in the Spanish capital, as reflected by the club’s attempts to secure a buyback clause though sources have indicated to CBS Sports that they have had to settle for a matching option instead. It has, however, long been apparent that the market for their bright young things that they might have need for in the medium term — Odegaard, Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Reguilon — does not exist for the likes of Isco or Gareth Bale (aside from an emotion-led season back on loan at Tottenham). If they wish to fund Kylian Mbappe’s salary or Erling Haaland’s buyout clause they need to monetize their youth talent.

As for Arteta, he always wanted Odegaard. There were other targets on the radar but sources at the club have indicated that Arsenal were always waiting to see how things shook out at Real Madrid before actioning interest in anyone else. It was not just that the 22 year old was the primary target. They were prepared to wait it out as long as it took to sign an attacking midfielder if that player was Odegaard, given the alternatives available to them.

Houssem Aouar was under consideration. Intermediaries attempted to set them up with James Maddison. One of them may have been seriously targeted had Carlo Ancelotti opted to bring Odegaard into the fold but until that particular case was definitively consigned to cold storage there would not be a different signing for the pivotal attacking midfielder position.

That is a lot of faith to put in a player who, in purely numerical terms, did not exactly set the Premier League alight. For all the numerous mitigating factors — a new league, a lack of first team football in the first half of the season and injury issues — two goals and two assists in 20 games is the sort of return that Arsene Wenger would perennially bemoan at the start of a new season. This Arsenal team, fresh from their lowest scoring league season since 1995-96, are crying out for goals. In Odegaard’s most prolific season in one of Europe’s top five leagues he scored seven and provided nine assists for Real Sociedad in 36 matches.

In that context it is perhaps understandable that a particularly vocal group of Arsenal supporters on social media were so enamored with James Maddison, a long range volume shooter with a proclivity for the spectacular. If the Leicester No.10 was a chart topping record, smacking you around the brain with his immediacy, then Odegaard is a little more cerebral. You can’t quite pick out the time signature. What’s going on with the rhythm guitar there? Meanwhile those few who saw him in the flesh last season would tell you it is not so much about the action as the spaces in between it, the moments he occupies a location that no one expected he might.

Odegaard is a curious player, with the ball at his feet giving the impression of the sort of languid No.10 that the game was supposed to have evolved beyond, and without possession pressing with furious intensity. That did not always translate into end product at Arsenal. That was not always his fault.

According to Opta’s model (which assesses the likelihood of any pass resulting in an assist, as opposed to others which do the same but only for passes that result in a shot) Odegaard registered 0.2 expected assists per 90 minutes in the Premier League last season, good for a spot in the 30 in the top flight, a reasonable enough start to life in a new country for a 22 year old. All too often Odegaard was playing the right pass at the right moment but those around him were not making the most of the opportunity.

He might, for instance, look back ruefully on the final day of last season and wonder how, through in behind the Brighton defense, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang failed to turn this position into at least a shot on goal.

Odegaard plays a through pass to Aubameyang that does not result in a shot
Wyscout/Sport 9

Similarly, a well timed reverse pass to Nicolas Pepe probably could have resulted in more than a shot that did not even make it as far as the Olympiacos goalkeeper. He may have ended his first spell at Arsenal with only two assists to his name but no player created more open play chances than Odegaard from the end of January onwards. Such is the reality of creating for a group of forwards who at various stages of the season were struggling for form and fitness. You can lead them to the penalty area but you cannot make them score.

Odegaard attempts a through pass for Nicolas Pepe

Equally, Odegaard did not always benefit from a stable platform on which to express his talents. When he first arrived Partey — Arteta’s other marquee addition from La Liga — was sidelined with injury, meaning he had to settle for the build up play of Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos and Mohamed Elneny, players who were passing the ball around at a comatose pace.

A brief run of games for Partey and Odegaard in March were among the most impressive either player has looked in an Arsenal shirt only for the latter to suffer a nagging ankle injury on international duty. By the time he returned Xhaka had been asked to plug a Kieran Tierney shaped hole at left back that fundamentally imbalanced the side, culminating in the disastrous Europa League semi final defeat to Villarreal.

Arteta has not quite recovered the authority over Arsenal supporters that he lost on that May night. Though the club hierarchy and ownership backed him significantly in the transfer window, Unai Emery can tell him that losing the Emirates Stadium faithful is a sure sign of an eventual exit. The fixture list is not on Arteta’s side if he wants to win them back. With Chelsea and Manchester City to come after the opening day defeat to Brentford, it is eminently possible that the Gunners could reach the season’s first international break on zero points.

It is that climate that Odegaard is thrust into. His first arrival was different. After their pre-Christmas nadir Arsenal had started to turn the corner thanks to Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka. Now there is a growing fear among supporters that this could be the start of another slog of a season.

In January, signing Odegaard on loan felt like as risk free a move as Arsenal could make. For a total outlay of around $5 million they got a talented youngster who addressed an immediate need in their team and had the potential to develop in the long term. Having beaten Ajax and Real Sociedad to the temporary deal they placed themselves in the box seat for the permanent deal.

A fee of $35 million to make his signing permanent seems a fair price but committing to such a fee off the evidence Arsenal have feels altogether more risky. Plugged in to a struggling side, Odegaard played his part in continuing reasonable improvements that had begun before he arrived but not the sort of radical upswing to expectations that Arteta needs now. 

At the start of the year bringing Odegaard to the Emirates felt like a can’t lose call to make. This time there is far more at stake, not just financially. Arsenal might just wish they had more on field information to go off.

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