Football Features

Martin Odegaard: From Real Madrid flop to bettering Messi (sort of)

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 18:32, 27 September 2019

When it comes to youth development the Dutch are often seen as the masters, a reputation that Martin Odegaard recently banked on and, since returning from his educational retreat, he’s been the talk of Spain.

Odegaard made global headlines in December 2014 when he opted to join Real Madrid after turning 16, at a time when it seemed practically all of Europe were vying for the Norwegian forward’s signature – including Ajax, who continue to churn out talented young footballers.

It was an understandable decision even if the pathway to regular first-team football was a pipe dream, at least short term. Odegaard grew up idolising Cristiano Ronaldo, so a chance to work – and study – alongside him wasn’t something he wasn’t going to pass up, even at the risk of harming of his maturation.

Under successive administrations – Carlo Ancelotti and his successor Zinedine Zidane – he’d ultimately make two appearances in all competitions totalling a meagre 122 minutes. It soon became real clear that Odegaard had to temporarily say goodbye to his decorated teammates for the sake of enjoying a similar career.

Dutch education

As far as those advising him were concerned, there was one league where Odegaard must call home – even if it should have been his next step after somewhat outgrowing Norway’s top division. Because of its reputation as a ‘developmental league’ – the unique selling point being the flourishing of talents in an attack-minded competition – the Eredivisie was earmarked as where the Drammen-born wonderkid must play.

Heerenveen, responsible for producing Hakim Ziyech and where Klaas-Jan Huntelaar truly announced himself, signed Odegaard on an 18-month contract in January 2017 and the effects of playing on a weekly basis soon became apparent. He’d subsequently leave the Super Frisians bagging three goals across 43 outings whilst creating a further five for his teammates. A very modest return, but it was clear there was more to come.

And that feeling came to fruition in his only season with Vitesse, who previously housed Chelsea’s very own rising star Mason Mount, when Odegaard registered 11 goals and 12 assists in 39 appearances. Of those goals created, no fewer than 10 came in the Eredivisie, making him the second Vitesse player this century to pick up 10 league assists. This campaign with Vitesse – chock full of him displaying his individual skill set – led to many calling for Real Madrid to give the wide-playmaker a real chance.

However, given the club’s turbulent summer on the back off a disappointing 2018/19, the likelihood of Odegaard lining up under Zidane felt too soon. Leaving the Spanish capital was seen in some quarters as him being a failure, but the fact he penned a new deal and was sent out on loan in La Liga couldn’t have contradicted that harsh observation more. Real Sociedad, another environment where talents grow, welcomed him with open arms.

The Real deal

It’s early days but this relationship already looks very promising. Odegaard, after six matches played, has a strong case to be the league’s best player on current form. The first of his two goals to date came on his second appearance, on matchday two, away to Mallorca where his 83rd-minute effort ultimately decided the contest.

Such is Odegaard’s importance, and testament of his fitness, he’s not missed a single minute of action. Diego Simeone would have wished he didn’t feature in Atletico Madrid’s recent 2-0 loss at the Anoeta Stadium, a game where he bagged his second of the season, putting in yet another maestro display, further ripping apart those claims he was a busted flush.

It goes without saying, the most hyped footballers don’t fulfil their potential, there’s no better example than Freddy Adu whom Odegaard was widely compared to in the early days. Unfortunately, in an era where all eyes are constantly on everyone, hyperbole becomes an issue. People are quick to pass judgement. Odegaard, if anything, is a reminder that Rome wasn’t built in a day. He went away, developed his game, and returned to play like a dream.

Last time out against Deportivo Alaves was his best performance yet in a La Real jersey. Imanol Alguacil’s men ran out comfortable 3-0 winners and though Odegaard didn’t get on the score sheet, not for the want of trying, he produced a sumptuous assist (first of the season) for Mikel Oyarzabal’s 19th-minute opener. From that moment he was pulling the strings with the media, the following day, effusing and putting the name of Lionel Messi with him in the same sentence.

He’s got a long way to go to be as consistently great as world football’s preeminent footballer and the new gold standard from which those following him will be judged against. But he did manage to do something Messi, at least since the 2016/17 season, hasn’t achieved. Odegaard, as touched upon, was creating scoring opportunities like it was going out of business. He finished on a mighty 10 chances created, which is the most produced in a single La Liga game from August 2016 onwards.

Yes, it’s something, albeit small fry compared to what Messi has done and continues to do. But it is to Odegaard’s credit that he is conjuring these emotions. He represents the 21st century generation that are starting to find their feet across the continent. If he keeps this calibre of performances up then don’t be surprised to see him in a year’s time as a fully paid up member of Europe’s most illustrious club.