The most interesting matchup in European men’s soccer this weekend might be Martin Ødegaard’s big in-person job interview. The on-loan Real Madrid youngster will start for Real Sociedad against his parent club at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday, and he’ll hope to prove that he can one day replace aging legend Luka Modric.
It has been nearly six years since most soccer fans first heard the name Ødegaard. The then-14-year-old prodigy, who had trained with Bayern Munich and Manchester United, was lighting up grown adults at Norwegian club Strømsgodset. He made his senior debut with Norway before he turned 16, and embarked on a heavily promoted tour of trials at Europe’s biggest clubs before deciding that he would continue his career at Real Madrid.
Ødegaard has made just one appearance for Los Merengues. When both Ødegaard and Zinedine Zidane were with Castilla, Real Madrid’s B team, the two clashed when Zidane pushed Ødegaard out to the wing to keep his son Enzo as the team’s No. 10. A loan to Heerenveen in the Netherlands pushed Ødegaard out of sight and mind for most casual fans, and he started to be mentioned in the same sentences as Freddy Adu.
But the only real problem with Ødegaard’s development path was what people expected of him. Sixteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to make big impacts for Real Madrid. Ødegaard looked a lot more comfortable during his age 18 season at Heerenveen, then made a big leap last year in the same league with Vitesse, recording nine goals and 10 assists. Madrid decided Ødegaard was ready to prepare in earnest for a career at the Bernabeu and sent him on a two-year loan to La Liga rivals Real Sociedad, where he’s showing signs of being a future superstar.
Real Sociedad has put together a squad that can compete for a top four spot in La Liga on a limited budget. They did it by identifying a brilliant transfer market inefficiency: Top youth prospects who washed out at big clubs. Captain Asier Illaramendi is a La Real academy product who struggled at Real Madrid, Adnan Januzaj never fulfilled his promise at Manchester United, and the duo of Alexander Isak and Mikel Merino failed to make the grade at Borussia Dortmund. At Real Sociedad, those players, along with Ødegaard, have finally unlocked their potential.
Here’s Ødegaard’s statistical profile this year, via StatsBomb. He’s far from a complete midfielder, but he’s already one of La Liga’s best dribblers and creative passers.
Ødegaard is Real Sociedad’s most advanced midfielder, but he often operates in spaces that make him something between what most people would classify as a center mid or attacking mid. He actually does most of his best passing from deep, completing a high volume of long, forward passes from behind the midfield line.
This is especially impressive given that Real Sociedad’s style of play isn’t based on direct play at all. La Real has the third-highest average possession in La Liga, but a below average number of deep completions, which StatsBomb classifies as completed passes from more than 20 meters away from goal into the final third. Real Sociedad’s system is based on conservative ball-retention, and Ødegaard is successfully completing a lot of line-breaking passes anyway.
Ødegaard has been criticized for not making a bigger defensive contribution, but that appears to be more due to his team’s design than laziness or lack of physical ability. At Vitesse, he was one of the most relentless pressers in the Eredivisie. Here is his stat radar from last season, in red, laid over this year’s.
Real Sociedad is dead last in La Liga in aggressive actions, classified by StatsBomb as tackles, pressures and fouls committed within two seconds of an opponent receiving the ball. La Real is also second-to-last in pressure regains, which is the number of times a team regains possession within five seconds of pressuring an opponent. The team, as a whole, prioritizes getting in shape over pressing. As a result, we probably shouldn’t read too much into Ødegaard’s dropoff in that area.
He’s clearly willing and able to do a lot of running, as you can see in this game-winning counter-attack against Mallorca.
The Ødegaard hype train really got rolling this year when he turned in a dominant performance against Alaves, including this completely outrageous assist that made me involuntarily yelp the first time I saw it.
I highly recommend this all-touches video of Ødegaard’s performance so you can get an idea of the things he does besides finish quick counter-attacks and play ridiculous through balls. He does a lot to help his team keep the ball in tight spots too, which is just as big a factor in Real Sociedad’s defensive record as its actual defending.
If you had never heard of Ødegaard before this year, you would think his development path was right on track for a top prospect. He struggled in Real Madrid’s B team as a 16-year-old, then was better as a 17-year-old. He struggled in the Eredivisie as an 18-year-old, but impressed as a 19-year-old, earning a role on a La Liga team. He has had a couple of bad games and isn’t having the same defensive impact he had last season, but he appears to be getting more confident with each start. If all goes well over the next season and a half, he’ll be ready to make a difference for Real Madrid around the time he turns 22.
Almost everyone overreacted to Ødegaard’s failure to reach superstar status as a teenager. Real Madrid, thankfully, did not. As a result, they might have a perfect Modric replacement waiting in the wings without spending a dime in the transfer market. And on Saturday, he’ll have a chance to prove to Madridistas that he’s up to the job.