Not many players make their debuts at aged fifteen, however, Martin Ødegaard is one of the few who has. Coming on for Strømsgodset’s match against Aalesunds FK, the Norwegian playmaker became the talk of international football fans.
Ødegaard’s debut saw him show off his impressive repertoire of skills, which culminated in a mazy run through the Aalesunds midfield before making his way into the penalty area, only for his run to be interrupted and Thomas Sørum to smash home the loose ball.
Bizarrely enough, that same assist would be replicated only a few months later by none other than the legendary Mesut Özil.
At the time, Arsenal were cutting through Watford like a hot knife through butter. Santi Cazorla’s inch-perfect ball found the German playmaker, who sped into the penalty area and took aim, before being unceremoniously scythed down by Nathan Aké. What would normally have resulted in a penalty led to the ball falling to the feet of the dangerous Alexis Sánchez who finally opened the scoring for Arsenal.
The two assists are eerily similar and show off the undisputed talent that both Özil and Ødegaard have at their disposal and why both players are the perfect fit for the Arsenal of old and the Arsenal of new.
Ødegaard and Özil share more similarities than coincidentally identical assists however. Both players were heralded as the dawn of new creative talent in Norway and Germany alike.
While both were making inroads in their native land, they were both soon offered the chance that all footballers dream of. To play for Los Blancos.
It is true that the opportunity to play for Real Madrid does not come around often, especially when competition for places are so high, and ddispite attractive offers from Arsenal or Bayern Munich, both Ødegaard and Özil decided to make the switch to Madrid.
It is here perhaps, that the similarities between the two deviate. Özil was a mainstay of a Real Madrid side that won a La Liga, a Supercopa de España and a Copa del Rey, which saw him strike up a terrifying partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo.
However, given Real Madrid’s interest in Gareth Bale and Özil’s reluctance to accept a mere bench role at the Bernabéu, saw Özil make the switch to North London and the rest is controversial history.
Ødegaard, on the other hand, did not feature for Real Madrid for a while. Given his age and relative inexperience, it seemed unfair to throw him into first-team action, so Ødegaard instead turned out for Real Madrid Castilla, the youth side.
From there, Ødegaard’s journey has been a somewhat meandering journey that has seen him loaned to SC Heerenveen and Vitesse in the Dutch Eredivisie and Real Sociedad in La Liga.
Though Ødegaard has impressed with these loans, there has been a feeling among many at the Bernabéu that the youngster was still not fully prepared for life in Spain.
Though Ødegaard played a much larger role at the Bernabéu this season, there were still signs of frustration as Ødegaard was continually reduced to sub appearances or being left out entirely.
Meanwhile, in North London, Arsenal’s season was taking a nosedive despite a promising start. A resolute 0-1 win at Old Trafford, was followed by a run of seven successive Premier League games without a win.
While many pointed towards the patchy form of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pépé, Willian and Alexandre Lacazette, the team’s real issue was a distinct lack of creativity.
Özil was at this point coming to the end of his time at Arsenal. He, along with teammate Sokratis Papastathopoulos, were left unregistered for Arsenal’s Premier League squad and there was no sign that either would be re-registered for Arsenal’s squad in January.
Despite the rather explosive form of Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal knew in their heart of hearts that a playmaker would be needed in January.
When January rolled around, Ødegaard was in the midst of negotiating a return to Real Sociedad before deciding to make the switch to Arsenal, inheriting Özil’s first number 11 in the process.
At this point, Özil had made the switch to Fenerbahçe and Arsenal were in dire need of creativity, even with Smith Rowe’s impressive performances.
Since making the switch to North London, Ødegaard seems to show where the underlying similarities and differences between himself and Özil lie.
In terms of similarities, Ødegaard and Özil both have the in-ate brilliance to turn a game on its head. Both Ødegaard and Özil have the technical ability to drift between the defensive lines and open up play for the attackers.
Given both player’s brilliance, defenders tend to stick either like glue, which can often be a useful foil to draw defenders out of position and create space for the attackers.
Özil is often spoken of in awed terms because of his ability to pick a pass. Indeed, his vision allowed him to pick out the marauding run of Sead Kolašinac against Burnley that no one in the ground seemed to have noticed. However, it wasn’t just Özil’s ability to pick a pass, it was also knowing when to release the ball.
Under Mikel Arteta, Arsenal tend to release the ball to a teammate as late as possible, so as to commit an opposition player and effectively take them out of the game with a well-placed pass.
Though Özil has shown his ability to do this on countless occasions, Özil seemed to have a timing that no other player had. While Arteta may want his players to wait until the last possible moment to release the ball, Özil would often spring the trap a few seconds earlier, so as to give an attacker time to run onto the ball.
This seems to be the case with Ødegaard too. At the moment, most of Arsenal’s main attacks are funnelled down the left-hand channel. Given the importance of Kieran Tierney and the tricky abilities of Emile Smith Rowe, it makes sense for Arsenal to focus their attacks down this channel.
Ødegaard, like Özil before him, likes the ability to drift where he sees fit. Invariably, this is in the thick of the action, where the ball goes, they go.
A criticism that has been levelled at Ødegaard since joining Arsenal, is his penchant for dropping deep to collect the ball. It can be difficult to see an attacking player collecting the ball on the halfway line, but this was a habit of Özil’s as well.
This allows either player to dictate play from deep. This somewhat elevated position allows Ødegaard and Özil to see what is in front of them, assess their options, work the space and occasionally spring a Hollywood ball across the pitch.
When Arsenal were chasing the game against Aston Villa, this wasn’t really a strategy that was conducive to Arsenal scoring an equaliser. Aston Villa sat far too deep, which meant that Ødegaard’s ability to pick a pass would be far less useful than if he were to drop further up the field and commit a man.
However, when Arsenal entertained Tottenham last Sunday, Ødegaard was in the thick of the action once more. While his deflected effort will obviously be the thing that everyone mentions, his tendency to remain further up the field caused real issues for Tottenham.
Granted, a midfield of Pierre-Emile Højberg and Tanguy Ndombele doesn’t exactly scream defensive discipline, but Ødegaard was too much for both to handle.
Arteta seemed to know that Ndombele would be pushed too far upfield trying to create and would likely contribute very little defensively, leaving Højberg exposed, having to cope with Ødegaard on his own.
At this point, the full range of flanks were open to Ødegaard’s vision. Bukayo Saka on the right-hand side is always a threat, as is Cédric Soares, whereas Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe were reaking havoc on the lonely Matt Doherty.
This meant that Ødegaard did not need to drift out wide to dictate play and was able to remain central, while his passing, dribbles and runs led Højberg out wide to cover.
For Ødegaard’s goal, both Lucas Moura and Højberg were left totally exposed in midfield and both noticed, too late, that Ødegaard was free in the middle, by which point Tierney’s pass had already reached the Norwegian.
Another important aspect to Ødegaard’s play is his workrate. In a high-pressing team, workrate is important, as is stamina and Ødegaard seems to have both in abundance.
One of the main criticisms levelled at Özil in his time with Arsenal was his work-rate, or lacklustre sentiments. Özil’s languid style of play and artistic temperament was a luxury Arsenal could often ill-afford when they were chasing games or when trying to defend a precarious lead.
This is perhaps where Özil and Ødegaard differ the most. Ødegaard’s workrate is too much to handle for the opposition, who are usually seen having to double up on Ødegaard in order to contain him.
When the ball is lost in attack, Ødegaard is often leading the charge to win it back and start again. Given that Arsenal like to press high up the pitch, Ødegaard’s tendency to push up and run until the final whistle goes is an invaluable asset to Arsenal.
This summer looks to be an important one for Mikel Arteta. Other postions need stocking up or straight up replacing, but Arteta faces a real dilemma with Ødegaard.
Madrid are unlikely to be too willing to let the talented youngster leave, but with two years remaining on his contract, they may have no choice. It is also an undeniable fact that there needs to be a willingness on Ødegaard’s part to join Arsenal permanently himself.
While Dani Ceballos has flattered to deceive in his second season in Islington, Ødegaard would likely be the catalyst the Arsenal team needs to mount a genuine top four tilt next season.
Whether or not Ødegaard does indeed join Arsenal permanently is up in the air at the moment, however, Ødegaard seems to have made an impact on the Arsenal side in the same way that Mesut Özil did when he joined Arsène Wenger’s side, the question is, can Arsenal avoid an Özil-esque fallout in the future if he stays?
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