At the time, Real Madrid’s signing of a 16-year-old Martin Odegaard appeared to be little more than a gimmick.
Hyped as the future of the sport on the basis of YouTube clips, a public pursuit of the Norwegian prodigy ensued, with the Santiago Bernabeu club paying €3 million to Stromsgodset for Odegaard just because they could. For relative pocket change, Real Madrid got to puff out their chest and proclaim themselves once again as the primary destination for the best talent in the game.
A lack of early development backed up this notion. There was a La Liga debut, coming off the bench to replace Cristiano Ronaldo late on in a game against Getafe, but Odegaard struggled to make an impression for Castilla and was farmed out on loan to Heerenveen and Vitesse where he vanished into relative obscurity.
Last season, however, saw Odegaard finally flourish. Five years after he arrived in the Spanish capital, the Norwegian has now established himself as a proven performer in La Liga, shining on loan at Real Sociedad. Odegaard was so impressive, notching four goals and six assists in 31 appearances, that Zinedine Zidane saw fit to cut short his two-season loan stint at the Anoeta, recalling him to the Santiago Bernabeu this summer.
He might have been on Real Madrid’s books since 2015, but Odegaard feels like their big summer signing ahead of the new season. The Norwegian has the makings of a ‘Galactico,’ but where will he fit into Zidane’s side? The fact Odegaard has been recalled suggests Zidane has a plan for the player, but what exactly is that plan?
In the medium to long term, it seems likely Odegaard will take Luka Modric’s place in the Real Madrid lineup. Both players are creative in their nature and expansive in their vision. They are similar also in their diminutive stature and low centre of gravity. But in the short term, are Real Madrid really ready to replace a player who looked back to his best over the final stretch of last season?
Odegaard v Modric in La Liga 19/20
|Final Third Passes P90||22.9||23.2|
|Big Chances Created||4||8|
Odegaard created eight big chances for Real Sociedad in La Liga season, while Modric created just four for Real Madrid. The two players charted similar numbers in terms of their final third involvement, with the Norwegian averaging 23.2 final third passes per 90 minutes and the Croatian averaging 22.9.
Their profiles are similar, although Modric is slightly more likely to move the ball forward with a pass while Odegaard is the more comfortable of the two driving forward himself. Modric was the more prolific passer last season (averaging 62.5 per 90 minutes compared to 53) with Odegaard averaging more dribbles (2.3 per 90 minutes to 1.9). There is something in the comparison between the two and logic behind the idea Odegaard will one day succeed Modric.
In the immediate term, though, Zidane already has a player to rotate Modric in and out with. Fede Valverde was one of the success stories of Real Madrid’s 2019/20 season, making himself one of Zidane’s first picks over the first two thirds of the campaign. When Los Blancos faced a season-defining Clasico against Barcelona in early March, Valverde was picked to start alongside Casemiro and Toni Kroos in midfield with Modric on the bench.
Valverde’s form faded after lockdown, but this was in no small part down to the way Zidane took to using him on the right wing rather than in the centre of the pitch. The Uruguayan still has the edge on Odegaard in that he has already shown that he can handle the pressure of being a first team figure for Real Madrid.
It’s possible Zidane should shift to a midfield diamond in order to accommodate Odegaard alongside three of Casemiro, Kroos, Modric and Valverde. But in doing this the Real Madrid boss would all but squeeze Eden Hazard out of the starting lineup, not to mention Marco Asensio, Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior.
A club like Real Madrid needs a squad deep enough to sustain them on all fronts and there is no doubt the recalling of Odegaard will help in this regard. But those expecting the Norwegian to forge a first team role for himself at the Santiago Bernabeu need to consider just how loyal Zidane is to his experienced heads. There’s a reason the Frenchman has kept the likes of Karim Benzema, Casemiro, Kroos, Marcelo, Modric and Sergio Ramos around for so long. He has squeezed more out of them than anyone thought possible.
A generational transition will have to happen at some point, though, and Odegaard, along with the likes of Asensio, Rodrygo, Valverde and Vinicius, is well-placed to become a central pillar of whatever is next built at the Santiago Bernabeu. The Norwegian needed patience earlier in his career and he needs it once more now.