Long Read

Martin Odegaard and James Rodríguez: The story of two playmakers

The two left-footed stars are at different points of their career but have a common denominator in the presence of Real Madrid and Zidane

8:30am on Wednesday 28th October 2020
Abel Meszaros

When it comes to left-footed technical playmakers most football fans and certainly Real Madrid fans will think of James Rodríguez and Martin Odegaard.

Their careers are different due to age and success, but there are also some similarities. The Norwegian wonderkid, who played with the pros at 13 and was coveted by all the top clubs before moving to Real Madrid, is now a well-known cautionary tale.

There’s also the lesser-known story about the hours of devotion Odegaard spent perfecting his technique. That image also might not fit the narrative of a floor-raising playmaker deemed too slow by most pundits or “not too quick or strong enough for the Premier League” (Sir Alex Ferguson back in 2010). Rodríguez meanwhile, who made his pro debut at age 14 for Colombian side Envigado, talked about this for Everton’s website:

“I basically live for the game. You constantly have to train yourself and take care of your wellbeing – your mind and your body. In the morning, I usually train. In the afternoon, I do everything I need to do in order to remain physically healthy. Basically, that is my entire day until about 6 or 7pm.”

A similar story emerged via These Football Times: “Odegaard’s former coach explains: 'We have a system that you ring the telephone at the door here [he points back towards the main training centre] and we open the door. He was always calling, ‘Harald, can you open the door?’ [because he wanted to play].

“I asked him once, ‘who is with you this time?’, and he said, ‘no one’. I said, ‘why didn’t you ask someone to join you?’. He had asked all of the guys and they couldn’t come but he was still going by himself."

Real Madrid in 2014/15

Odegaard and James are two football junkies whose paths - despite their age difference in age - are intertwined ever since they joined Real Madrid in 2014/15. Rodríguez, who had gotten some buzz for his nine goals and 13 assists campaign for second-place Monaco in Ligue 1, exploded at the World Cup, winning the Golden Boot despite going out in the quarter-final to Brazil.

It was also a tumultuous summer in La Liga. Following a season in which Atletico Madrid won the title, both Real and Barca made big moves: out went Angel di Maria, Xabi Alonso and the Cesc Fabregas-Alexis Sanchez duo, but there were even bigger incoming transfers: Toni Kroos and Ivan Rakitic were added to midfields featuring the likes of Luka Modric, Isco, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

Yet, the biggest coup was Rodríguez’s €75m move in July to aid the BBC frontline of Real in their battle against Barcelona’s now MSN, as the Catalans had just signed Uruguay’s Luis Suarez for €81m.

James and Suarez had already met at the World Cup, with the Colombian’s goal of the tournament getting the upper hand. Although James would finish with a 13 goals and 13 assists, it was Suarez’s 16+13 that would get the better of Real Madrid, with Barca winning the title on 94 points to 92.

In Norway, Odegaard’s “summer” had already begun in April, making his league debut for his hometown team Stromsgodset at 15, and dazzling the less-than-7000 spectators with a variety of flicks, through balls and dribbles.

By May he was their youngest-ever goalscorer, by July he played in Champions League qualifying, and by August he was called up to the national team and made his debut. In October he featured as a substitute in the 2-1 Euro qualifier win over Bulgaria and by January of 2015, he signed a six year contract to become a Real Madrid player, becoming team-mates with recent Club World cup champion, James.

Given Real’s aforementioned attacking depth, their status in world football and Odegaard’s age it was always unlikely that the two would play much together.

In the end James and Odegaard would take the pitch together just once. With Barcelona already champions, the 7-3 thrashing of Getafe was a sort of encore on matchday 38. Odegaard replaced first half hat-trick hero Cristiano Ronaldo in the 57th minute, becoming Real’s youngest ever debutant at 16 years and 157 days old, while the Colombian scored his 13th goal of the season from a direct free kick.

Carlo Ancelotti has always been one of James’ greatest fans, but the coach who led Real to La Decima in the previous campaign would depart at the end of the 2014/15 season, to be replaced by Zinedine Zidane.

Zizou is another common thread that connects James and Odegaard, altering the career trajectories for the worse for both. The Colombian became a rotation piece under the triple UCL-winning coach and would not reach double digits in the next two seasons, before undergoing a brief period as the Bundesliga’s best player under another ex-Real Madrid manager, Jupp Heynckes.

Having failed to get used to the tough environment in Munich, as well as win over Niko Kovac in a turbulent Bayern side, his loan fizzled out. His return to Madrid and the reunion with Zizou was doomed from the start and he would play just 419 minutes all season, exiting gracefully, as Madrid were happy to replace him and get off his €150-200k per week wages by recalling Odegaard from loan.

Much of the analytics community chided Everton for shelling out €20m and paying €90-100k per week for a 29-year-old who hasn’t played over 2000 minutes in 5 seasons. Ironically, James’ contributions of 0.8 non-penalty xG + xA are in line with the averages of his last three Real seasons of 0.67, so the data evidence was there all along...

It’s been a wildly successful one so far. Unbeaten Everton lead the league, James has scored three and created six goals in just four matches - for comparison Messi had 36 in 32 matches to lead the big five leagues.

The Colombian is also creating a further six shots per match: just for context, Kevin de Bruyne leads the planet with nine SCAs per 90, with James’ numbers putting him in last season’s top 10 , as well as this one’s too.

In some ways the Everton story with Ancelotti is similar to how he is used for the national team: the left-footed James is basically an inverted winger\wide creator on the right wing of a hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3. Both systems use a hard-working but technical right-back that can over\underlap (Seamus Coleman and Santiago Arias), an opposite side winger/forward who can attack the box for crosses and still defend enough (Cuadrado & Richarlison) and a rampaging box-to-box guy (Doucoure vs the current version of Cuadrado, who has become like a No. 8 who drifts wide when James comes inside). Back in the Ancelotti era at Real, Dani Carvajal, Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo played these roles.

Some of this is also done to ease the defensive burden, so James can be unleashed with his midfield solutions of quick intelligent football. These include recognizing third-man runs in a blink of an eye and playing razor sharp passes to runners, a variety of body feints to get out vs pressure no matter the situation, quick spins (similar to Odegaard) to the right vs pressing defenders, and of course vision/execution. It’s early, but looks like 2020\21 might just be the year James redeems himself.

Odegaard’s long road to redemption also began with some issues with Zidane, who played him as a winger in order to feature his son Enzo as a No. 10 at Castilla, which finished a disappointing seventh. The French coach also reportedly disliked the idea of giving special treatment to the Norwegian, as well as the rule of having to invite him to train with the first team. In the 2016 preseason, Zidane clashed with president Florentino Perez over Odegaard’s inclusion on Real’s North American tour, thinking it was some sort of a PR move.

Incidentally, Carlo Ancelotti used the same words over Odegaard’s signing at the time, describing it in his book: "When Florentino buys a Norwegian footballer, you simply have to accept it."

The road back to relevancy took Odegaard through the Netherlands, where there were some promising signs at Heerenveen, but it wasn’t until 2018/19 that he began to flourish with eight goals and 10 assists as the Mason Mount replacement for Leonid Slutsky’s Vitesse.

With all of Europe once again taking notice, Madrid sent him on a two-year loan to join the exciting Real Sociedad project with the likes of Mikel Oyarzabal, Alexander Isak and Mikel Merino. Few expected such initial success: in early November, Sociedad, tied with Real and Barca for the lead, were understandably the talk of La Liga, whilst the Norwegian was putting up Messi-like passing/ball progression numbers.

In terms of tactics, in Imanol Alguacil’s 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 Odegaard was nominally a No. 10, but played like a right-sided No. 8, dropping very deep to collect the ball.

Or rather, to WANT the ball, for Odegaard’s greatest skill isn’t necessarily his creativity, it’s his willingness to make himself available under all circumstances.

Unlike many technical players, Odegaard never hides. In addition to being both a safe and a risky passer, Odegaard uses his slight frame to make quick turns to evade pressure and he’s a monster dribbler: Odegaard succeeds 67% of the time (same as Messi) but he’s also second-best in success rate behind Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s otherworldly 83.3% among the top 15 dribblers in volume.

His final third creativity needs no introduction, as Real found out when Sociedad eliminated them from the Copa del Rey in a 4-3 thriller, which probably had a lot to do with him being recalled after year one of a two year loan spell.

Odegaard at Real Madrid in 2020/21

Incidentally, his first match for Real Madrid came against Sociedad: Odegaard was the nominal No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1, but had the freedom to move deep and interchange with Modric and was constantly offering himself as an option between the lines.

The Norwegian created 3 shots (the best one in the 53rd on a counter for Benzema that got blocked), but logged 79% pass completion with a few misplaced passes to Vinicius and Benzema. He did manage just 50 touches compared to the 70 of Modric who was also subbed out on 68 minutes, but both were outshone by Toni Kroos’ six shot-creating actions and superior passing.

In the thrilling 3-2 win over Betis, Odegaard was at the top of the diamond in a 4-4-2 but with difficulties in understanding with Luka Jovic, providing no real offensive contributions, and losing Willam Carvalho for the equaliser, he was hooked for Isco after just 28 touches at half time. Isco was picked ahead of him against Valladolid and he would play just two minutes against Levante.

While Odegaard was dazzling during the Nations League with Norway, he had time to express his satisfaction with his playing time. Given Zidane’s excellent rotational philosophy that helped Los Blancos win those back-to-back-to-back UCLs and sprint to La Liga title last season, it’s not unreasonable to think that the Norwegian will get more chances starting this weekend vs. newly-promoted Cadiz. In the long term, other factors such as Modric’s recent rediscovery of form, or Odegaard’s chronic knee injury that derailed a large chunk of his spring campaign might impact his playing time.

However, with three UCL matches against Shakhtar Donetsk, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Inter sandwiched around El Clasico next weekend, we’re bound to see more of Odegaard. Meanwhile, James, who has arguably been the biggest transfer hit in the Premier League, can test himself against Liverpool this weekend and continue his redemption story.

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