Bukayo Saka’s improvised backheel in preparation for his first goal. The pass clipped in the feet of Alexandre Lacazette before the third. Martin Odegaard served up some moments to savor in Arsenal’s 3-2 win over Watford.
The 23-year-old was in sparkling form at Vicarage Road, but in truth he produced performances of a similar standard for much of the season. Signed for £34million from Real Madrid after his loan spell last season, he is looking more and more like a bargain.
Odegaard has been a central figure in Arsenal’s rise up the Premier League table, and while his goal and assist tallies are relatively modest at five and three respectively in 23 appearances, the Norwegian offers so much more.
Odegaard’s creative spark
When he’s not providing the final flourishes himself, Odegaard can usually be found setting the stage for his teammates.
Consider his role in Gabriel Martinelli’s goal against Watford, when he assisted Cedric Soares’ pass to Alexandre Lacazette using the outside of his boot as Arsenal moved forward at high speed.
It was a vital touch, a moment of inspiration that allowed Lacazette to release the ball for Martinelli to finish, and it was also just the latest example of Odegaard playing the pass. before the pass.
He was also influential in both of Arsenal’s goals against Wolves 10 days earlier, clearing Eddie Nketiah with a deft ball over the equalizer build-up, then collecting Nicolas Pepe’s pass and feeding Lacazette ahead of their added time winner.
None of those contributions translated into assists, but they were invaluable in creating the openings in the first place and a closer look at the stats highlights his importance to Arsenal’s attack.
Odegaard creates more chances per 90 minutes than any of his teammates and, just as importantly, he also ranks first in assists in the final third and passing into the opposition box.
There was a conscious effort to get him closer to the opposing goal and Arsenal are reaping the rewards.
“I think he’s more comfortable doing this now than he was when he joined,” Mikel Arteta said in a chat with sky sports Last week.
“He was playing in deeper roles all the time, getting the ball in deeper areas, and he was more comfortable playing in those positions than in forward positions.
“But it’s something we’ve been working on with him because, in my opinion, that’s where he can be the best for the team.”
Arteta still wants to see Odegaard enter the box more often – and that’s understandable given he’s scored four goals from just 12 shots from inside the box this season – but he’s also a threat from range, while that set pieces are another part of his armory.
Odegaard’s first goal of the season came in the form of a superb free-kick against Burnley in September and, in terms of creativity, his deliveries were invaluable in maximizing Arsenal’s free-kick threat with the help of specialist trainer Nicolas Jover.
Odegaard is widely considered a No.10 but it is down the right lane, in the area between the flank and the center of the pitch, where he has done most of his best work this season.
His telepathic understanding with Bukayo Saka, who usually operates on the right side of Arsenal’s front three, was instrumental in the team’s recent winning run and was clear to see in their first goal against Watford on Sunday.
After redirecting Saka’s pass into his path using the heel of his right boot, Odegaard charged into the box and met the 20-year-old’s cut with a composed left-footed finish in the corner.
The goal, beautifully crafted and clinically taken, reflected the couple’s mutual appreciation. “They trust each other,” Arteta explained. “The more they play together, the better they will understand.”
The prospect of Odegaard and Saka’s understanding growing even stronger should be tantalizing to Arsenal fans given how often they already combine.
So far this season, Odegaard has found Saka more times than any other Arsenal player (122), while only Thomas Partey has directed more passes to Odegaard than Saka (118).
Arsenal’s attacking focus has changed accordingly.
Last season, their left flank was their primary source of attacking threat, with Kieran Tierney’s overlapping runs becoming a feature of their game and opponents finding ways to stop him as a result.
But this time around, Arsenal are sending a greater proportion of attacks down the opposite flank, where deft exchanges from Odegaard and Saka are proving harder to defend against.
Indeed, according to Opta, the pair have been involved in more shooting and assisting streaks than any of their Arsenal teammates this season. Expect the same against Leicester.
Defensive work rate
Odegaard is helping to get the most out of Saka, who scored his eighth Premier League goal of the season against Watford, and he’s setting the tone for Arsenal off the ball as well as on it.
Arteta described his work rate as “phenomenal” after arriving on loan last year and he has continued in the same vein since making his move to Arsenal permanent in the summer.
Odegaard presses aggressively but also smartly, harassing defenders upfield and timing his runs to close passing lanes and disrupt opposition attempts to play from behind.
He has won possession 19 times in the final third this season, which is comfortably the most of any Arsenal player, while tracking data shows he also averages 11.4km per 90 minutes , which is half a mile more than any other regular starter.
Odegaard plays an important role in his own half as well as the opposition, diligently tracking down and providing protection on Arsenal’s right side. Perhaps most impressively, only Gabriel Magalhaes and Thomas Partey have had more tackles than Odegaard among Arsenal players this season.
His energy off the ball was an important part of his call to Arteta and it helped Arsenal improve their press game considerably.
This season they are forcing more turnovers (8.1 per game) than in any of the Spaniard’s previous campaigns in charge and more frequently winning possession in the final third as well.
Odegaard played a key role in the improvement.
Leadership and maturity
Odegaard has, to quote Arteta, “been through a lot”.
He had just turned 16 when he was thrust into the limelight with his transfer to Real Madrid in 2015 and then had to prove himself in a series of inglorious loan moves. having failed to live up to expectations at the Bernabeu.
“I think it was a really tough time for Martin because the expectations he had right away at his age weren’t commensurate with the level he was playing and what he could actually do,” Arteta said. . sky sports Last week.
“Then I think he was trying to manage himself mentally, not show off too much and not pay too much attention to what was written about him.”
It took enormous mental toughness to do so, but Odegaard pulled it off, impressing enough with Heerenveen and Vitesse in the Eredivisie to earn a loan move to La Liga side Real Sociedad and then seize his chance with Arsenal.
As a result, at 23, he is now captain of his national team and a “young leader” in the eyes of Arteta. But those who knew him from the beginning always saw these qualities in him.
“The way he thought about football and how smart he was on the pitch was amazing,” said Bersant Celina, his former teammate at boyhood club Stormsgodset in Norway, in a chat with sky sports back in 2017.
“What is most striking about him is his maturity,” added Leif Gunnar Smerud, the coach who gave him his debut with the Norwegian U21s. “There are a lot of young players who have technical ability, but they need to be mature in how they use their skills.
“Martin was incredibly strong in this area from an early age.”
Odegaard’s maturity is now more apparent than ever.
Arsenal are the only Premier League side to have a starting line-up with an average age under 25 this season, but at Odegaard they have an experienced head on young shoulders and a player whose influence on the ground becomes more evident. weekly.
“He made a clear decision,” Arteta added to sky sports. “He wanted to come here on loan and see how it was, then he thought it was the right place for him. I think he’s really happy where he is.”
Arsenal and Arteta are equally happy to have him.
Watch Arsenal vs Leicester live on Sky Sports Premier League on Sunday from 4pm; kick off 4:30 p.m.