New season, same old Real Madrid. That was the feeling when Los Blancos stumbled to a lethargic 1-1 draw against Valladolid at the Santiago Bernabéu last weekend.
Two matches of the 2019/20 campaign were all it took for the same issues that have plagued them for several years now to reappear, a lack of energy and ingenuity making things all too predictable and simple for the visitors who were happy to out-run the LaLiga title hopefuls and come away with a point from a stadium that used to be one of Europe’s fortresses.
There was a certain irony in how during the same weekend in which Madrid sleepwalked their way to a draw, a player they own produced a Man-of-the-Match display in the middle of the pitch, sealing a win for his temporary club.
Martin Ødegaard’s name is all over the big Spanish sporting outlets this week, and for good reason.
The Norwegian’s excellent start to the league campaign on loan at Real Sociedad suggests he not only has the quality to dominate games at this level, but also that he could be a viable option for Real Madrid in the near future.
The fact Ødegaard has been on the books at Madrid for four years now can make it seem like he failed to deliver on his potential, but the Norwegian is still only 20, and his progress as of late is significant.
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The attacker spent last year on loan at Vitesse, playing 39 games in which he scored 11 and assisted 12.
For some perspective on just how outstanding he was, consider that Ødegaard was the only player not at Ajax or PSV to make the Eredivisie Team of the Season starting XI.
Madrid renewed the youngster’s contract until 2022 this summer before telling him out to go out and further prove himself by taking on a bigger challenge still.
A number of attractive loan options were on the table but Ødegaard chose the possibility of playing regular LaLiga football with Real Sociedad, where he would be better observed by Madrid than anywhere else.
The calculation already looks a smart one, the Norwegian quickly establishing himself as one of the first names on La Real’s teamsheet during pre-season, and playing 90 minutes in both of their league fixtures to date.
As the Basques have an excess of options on the flanks and in the forward line, they have found more use for Ødegaard in a central position – a development that only makes him more attractive for Madrid, whose summer has been marked by the failure to add fresh quality to their midfield.
Recast in playmaker mould, in the opening round of the LaLiga season against Valencia he completed more passes in the opposition half than any other player that matchday, showing willingness to receive the ball in difficult areas and skill to resolve those situations.
Valencia are a team known for their quality on the break: losing possession high up the pitch is an invitation for them to kill you, so decision making on the ball is key. Ødegaard was mature enough to be selective in his passing against Los Che, not trying to force the issue.
Against Mallorca on matchday two he played it far less safe however, and when space started to open up in the second half, he was first to punish the islanders.
There were dribbles, disguised passes to break Mallorca’s press, and relentless effort, but the key intervention came with less than 10 minutes to go.
When Real Sociedad won back possession in their own half, Ødegaard first released Portu in space behind the defence with an excellently weighted pass. Then, using Alexander Isak’s run as a distraction, he drifted into the box. With a first touch that left an opponent on the ground, his second was to thunder a shot into the net, close to the post and impossible to save.
It was a combination of vision, split-second thinking and end product that only the best players have, and the goal echoed around Spain as the proof that Ødegaard has arrived in LaLiga with a bang.
It’s not only the Norwegian’s quality that Madrid could do with in the middle of the pitch, but also his running.
According to Marca, Real Sociedad’s analysis of the pre-season showed that Ødegaard covers the most distance, produces the most changes in pace, and makes the most consecutive sprints of any player in their squad.
Against Mallorca he ran 12.4km but still had the energy to win the game in the closing phase, showing excellent physical conditioning. Madrid must be watering at the mouth.
If he keeps this up throughout the season, Ødegaard will make a case to be a regular member of Madrid’s first team squad that will be difficult to ignore.
It is with that possibility in mind that Los Blancos had the foresight to include the option of ending the 20-year-old’s two-year loan early and bringing him back to the Bernabéu next summer. At this rate, the only disappointment is that they can’t do it sooner.