In the modern age of professional football, assessment of players succumbs constantly to the reactiveness of social media discussion. Players never seem to be assessed with nuance but rather oscillate between extremes. They are hailed as the ‘new…’, given an elevated status, followed by struggles to breakthrough. Then, there is stagnation and finally public derision for failing to fulfil one’s potential.
Reality of course sits somewhere between extremes as players undergo the natural processes of development regarding technical-tactical and physical maturation as well as acclimatization to a new tactical environment.
And the last point is probably extremely pertinent in the case of Martin Ødegaard. Not only did he emerge in the professional game at the tender age of 15, but he also played mature, clean football which has been a pivotal component of Real Sociedad’s success this season.
But both at Castilla and especially in the first team, Zinedine Zidane deployed a side whose emphasis lay upon security and stability, where chances were created through crosses in heavily wing-oriented attacks. Consigned to a conservative role on the flank, Ødegaard was unable to interact and penetrate through the central spaces integral to his excellence. Neither the star of the side nor in a conducive tactical construct, his struggles can be contextualized.
He has spent time at Heerenveen and Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands before finally returning to La Liga with the Basque side this season. To those who meticulously tracked his path from 2017, this season’s performances will not be astonishing. But what makes the Norwegian so special? How has he ‘transformed’ from a floundering, mercurial talent to one of the best creative players in the world?
Strategic Playmaking and Stabilizing
Ødegaard has been used in Real Sociedad’s system this season in a way that harnesses his exceptional talent. One of the most ostentatious elements of his skillset is his resistance to pressure from the opposition.
In order to evade pressure, he typically uses a left-handed spin. On numerous occasions, he would fake as if to use options in the opposite direction to that of intended, before eluding pressure with this spin and choosing the most strategically advantageous option available.
This was exemplified by his performance against Atletico Madrid at the start of the season. Here, the guests are defending in their classic 4–4–2 shape. The concepts behind their defending can be seen in the compact midfield quartet, the effective body positioning to maximise the collective cover shadow and operating in groups of three to ensure pressing players are adequately secured.
Saúl now can flexibly press Ødegaard in either direction, and Costa will help the midfielder trap the Norwegian in the six space; approaching with strong timing, Saúl has placed Ødegaard in a problematic situation.
Yet Ødegaard processes the situation extremely effectively to outplay the pressure. He moves wider and away from Zubeldia to receive with his back, right foot thus forcing Saúl to shift more horizontally in a way that both maximizes pressure on the ball carrier and reduces the extent of the Atletico midfielder’s coverage. Here, most players would turn out and find themselves squeezed by the opposition pressing trap.
The true genius lies in what he does next. Rather than orientate himself conventionally, he drops his right shoulder whilst ricocheting the ball to his left. The combination of tight ball control and body feint not only eliminates Saúl through its ‘surprise’ effect but also subsequently opens up the right halfspace; Lemar retreats centrally, Portu has pinned Lodi and Zaldúa is now free on the right wing.
Ødegaard’s mix of dynamism to maintain separation, agility in confined spaces, technical quality to minimize errors and above all intelligence allows him to thrive in high pressure situations where he can stabilize and support ball circulation. These attributes earmark him out in Real Sociedad’s system because their style is characterised by ‘quiet’, patient ball circulation deeper in the build-up phase. Not only must players be able to retain the ball against pressure but also possess a strong tactical nous to recognise the right moments to transition into higher zones in a clean manner.
Indeed, the individuals under the tutelage of manager Imanol Alguacil possess profiles that strongly suit this form of possession football. This strategic sense distinguishes Ødegaard from the likes of James Maddison at Leicester, who, in a similar system, sometimes opts to drop back and invite pressure heedlessly rather than maintaining his basic positioning in between the lines of the opposition’s defensive block.
In advanced areas of the field, Ødegaard can function as a highly creative 10 who uses his dribbling to generate opportunities by using the dynamic created in situational overloads. Using this left-handed spin and the attributes explored in the first section to needle his way through pressure, he can similarly thread tight combinations together in the final third.
Manipulating the opposition, he delays his final action for as long as possible giving the eventual recipient space and time to execute the next action. You can thus see how players like Ødegaard or Henrikh Mkhitaryan comparatively struggle in less dynamic, weaker possession structures where they cannot find a way through the centre with creative, group-tactical solutions but instead are forced into problematic situations with few suitable reference points.
Thus, it is worth giving a word to the individuals who allow Ødegaard to thrive in this regard. Mikel Merino, a mixture of a deep playmaking six and creative eight, is instrumental within the context of combination play. Not only does he offer intelligent and creative contributions on the ball, but he also interprets and balances the offensive structure, helping establish situational overloads through movements into the halfspaces.
The latter would apply to the situation below where Busquets cannot open the halfspace for Oyarzabal, Ødegaard attracts de Jong and Griezmann and Januzaj can receive wide with Zaldúa immediately overlapping; Merino recognizes the space needs to be filled and immediately shifts the ball to Januzaj who can in turn use Zaldúa’s space creating overlap to dribble diagonally towards goal.
Furthermore, a prominent component of Real Sociedad’s successful implementation of their possession game can be attributed to the interaction between Ødegaard and Oyarzabal. Albeit less explosive than Leroy Sané, Oyarzabal is reminiscent of the German in terms of his tight ball control at high speeds, sharp changes of direction and decisiveness in the final third. But again, he also possesses strengths that complement Ødegaard within the context of combination play; dynamic and intelligent positioning as well as the timing of runs in behind defences have seen the winger strike up an excellent working relationship with Ødegaard.
Typical combinations involving Ødegaard will either see a defender ‘jump’ a dribbling route provoking a one-two from which the midfielder will receive between the lines and reassess the situation. Alternatively, the dribbling lane will be permitted, and he can subsequently misdirect the opponent towards the centre before slipping a vertical pass through to one of his teammates.
Either way, his impeccable timing allows him to force errors which his teammates can in turn exploit. Furthermore, once Ødegaard is between the lines it is common to see him deliberately use reverse passes (more on those later) against the newly created dynamic as to tie up defenders even further.
A prime example of these aspects coming together is Oyarzabal’s goal against Osasuna which was assisted by the midfielder. Defensive midfielder Guevara had tipped between the two centre backs leaving Merino and Ødegaard in front of the opposition midfield.
An initial combination through the centre of the Osasuna defence fails and Ødegaard picks up the ball. Characteristically, he delays and delays until Brasanac ‘jumps’ the dribbling lane and opens the space between the lines; Ødegaard immediately plays a one-two with Merino, advances diagonally through the centre, uses the run of Portu to tie the two right sided defenders and finally slides Oyarzabal in to score the first goal of the game.
His combinative dribbling much like his strategic playmaking illuminates the maturity in his game and the very focused use of an extensive array of technical skills in a way that can easily be missed.
But enough of the high-brow analysis. Sometimes as football fans, we just want to be entertained. And Ødegaard possesses a capacity for exceptionally creative, decisive actions that emphasize his completeness as an offensive midfielder.
One facet in his repertoire of skills deserves its own mention is his use of reverse passes. Against Villarreal, he crafted a number of attacks through dribbling from the right halfspace towards the centre and then using these passes to engineer cutback situations; the scene below depicts the contraction of the Villarreal defence freeing up Portu on the right wing who in turn assisted Willian José to give La Real the lead.
Whilst his one-footedness stands in contrast to the ambidexterity of opponent that day in Santi Cazorla, this ‘constraint’ has facilitated the development of unorthodox creativity in situations where he does not have an appropriate orientation or body position. To play such passes against your own momentum precisely as to not decelerate the attack is an art form in itself.
The implications of this manoeuvre for defenders indicates how this is more than just a moment of spectacular creativity. Given the standard ball orientation of the opposition, defenders will seek to block dribbling and passing lanes in the direction which Ødegaard himself is running. The efficacy of the ‘no-look’ element of these reverse passes is that there is no stimulus to suggest the Villarreal defenders reorient themselves to the eventual recipient Portu.
This reiterates how Ødegaard’s deceptive abilities can be harnessed to provide teammates easier final actions. In a different system, you could see him focus majorly on these types of final third actions as an inverted winger stationed in the halfspace. The many goal-oriented options from this area could be harnessed effectively since Ødegaard can play in all directions.
And his strengths in terms of manipulating defenders to find creative solutions in the final third can also be seen in his unorthodox use of chip balls. An individual like Gündogan uses lofted passes in a very precise manner targeting the halfspaces to find a winger running diagonally behind an advancing backline. On the other hand, Ødegaard uses chip balls with additional spin and height from unorthodox areas that do not target recipients cleanly but rather are used to wreak aerial havoc amongst a defence because they are difficult to reach or control.
You can see this technique manifest in the way he takes set pieces but an archetypal instance of this form of chipped pass would be that in the build-up to Portu’s goal against Real Betis to seal a 3–1 victory.
Ødegaard receives the ball on the edge of Betis’ box. The guests frantically scramble to keep Real Sociedad away from their goal, but the Norwegian seeks to wreak further chaos in their disjointed defensive shape. His lofted ball is in the direction of Oyarzabal (10) who fails to control it cleanly; however, neither left back Pedraza (6) nor Mandi (23) reads the situation effectively. The excessive back spin generated by the midfielder lures the centre back towards a potential aerial duel; caught underneath the ball, the chip ‘inadvertently’ clears space for the onrushing Portu whose half-volley beats goalkeeper Joel.
Ødegaard’s primary strength, pervading in this piece, is his ability to manipulate defences in all directions. He can flexibly provide stability and structure, facilitating chance creation and penetration through the right halfspace or the centre. He acts consistently, logically and strategically.
Although this piece should have conveyed how extensive Ødegaard’s repertoire is, there are elements in his game such as his ball control, passing game and positional awareness between the lines which have not even been covered. He is a complete offensive midfielder whose growing maturity and appropriate utilization have culminated towards a stellar season.
Guest author EA