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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 7 March 2021

Martin Odegaard makes another stop at Arsenal and this time is hoping for lift-off

The Norway star arrives on loan from Real Madrid still waiting to flourish for the Spanish giants

During his grand tour of the heavyweight clubs of Europe, the schoolboy Martin Odegaard stopped off at Arsenal and visited their training headquarters, north of London.

The then manager, Arsene Wenger, liked the look of the Norwegian prodigy but was left in no doubt that an escalating auction for his talent was already under way.

That was the year, 2014, Odegaard became the most studied 15-year-old in football. He made his senior international debut against UAE that August. Almost as soon as he turned 16, he was signing a €3m-a-year contract with Real Madrid.

He was unveiled by Madrid amid great fanfare six Januarys ago now, and, assuming he passes his medical at Arsenal, he will be presented this week at a fourth different club since that glitzy day in the Spanish capital.

All four have been loan spells, and Arsenal’s proposed deal would run only until June. In the upper echelons of Real Madrid, there is still a determination to see the grown-up Odegaard flourish in all-white; the doubt is only about when the project will have lift-off.

Odegaard, at 22, has given almost every indication that the quick feet, the confidence, the head-raised comfort on the ball he showed astonishingly early are still a productive part of his make-up. In the third of his loans away from the Bernabeu, last season, he made himself indispensable at Real Sociedad, a centrepiece of side that were as watchable as any in La Liga, and enjoyed a stirring run to the Copa del Rey final.

“Our team grew in strength thanks to Martin,” said the Real Sociedad head coach Imanol Alguacil. Which makes it sounds like the perfect loan deal: beneficial for the parent club eager for their tyro to mature and a catalyst for the borrowing club’s squad to mature around him.

Much the same would be said of Odegaard at the Dutch clubs Heerenveen and Vitesse, where he spent two and half seasons on loan from Madrid, after making his symbolic, historic debut in all-white as a late substitute for Cristiano Ronaldo when he was still 16.

He found himself tightly, often brutally marked in Dutch football – being a famous, millionaire 16-year-old attracts attention – and toughened up while still trusting his talent to take risks on the pitch, back himself in his duels.

He earned enough respect in Holland that Ajax were quickly in contact with Madrid when Odegaard made it clear he wanted another loan for the first half of 2021. So were Real Sociedad. “Of course we’d have liked him back, but it wasn’t an option,” said Imanol.

In part, Madrid felt reluctant to see Odegaard again fortify a domestic rival. As for the player, he is frustrated that the much-heralded breakthrough into the Madrid first-team has not materialised.

Odegaard had every reason to believe, last August, that when Madrid asked him to come back from Real Sociedad, he would be a principal figure in a Madrid team needing rejuvenation. The established creative midfield pairing of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are into their 30s.

Nearly four and half years after his debut for the Madrid seniors, he made his first start for them on the opening day of this season. Head coach Zinedine Zidane had him in the line-up for two of the next four games Odegaard was available for.

Since then: No Liga starts, and a lot of lingering on the bench. Odegaard had a sense of deja vu. When he first joined Madrid, amid all the hype, Zidane was in charge of club’s feeder team, Castilla, where Odegaard mostly trained, and though Zidane selected the apprentice regularly, he was also very willing to leave him on the bench, despite the prodigy’s fame and reputation.

Arsenal appealed as the next loan-spell stepping-stone. Odegaard, a regular for the Norway national team, saw a squad where he could feel like a senior player next to the up-and-comings like Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith-Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli, but where he could still learn.

It's a place where he might discuss how hard it is to gain Zidane’s confidence with Dani Ceballos, currently in his second season on loan at Arsenal from Madrid. He saw a striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who would thrive on Odegaard’s excellent delivery of a pass, with a moving ball or from set-pieces.

Odegaard looked at the fixture list, too, and saw that Arsenal meet Manchester United this weekend. He may have privately thought to himself that the Premier League can be a helpful place for a January signing to make an impact, that perhaps he could do for Arsenal some of what Bruno Fernandes did for United.

Updated: January 26, 2021 07:41 AM


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