Part two of the series: I wrote about the Domino Effect of Martin Ødegaard returning to the Real Madrid squad: Who loses out? Whose minutes will be cut to make space for the Norwegian’s? Whom will he be competing with this season?
Part one can be found here.
In 2015, Martin Ødegaard was signed as a 16-year old who was waiting to show the world what he is all about. A few setbacks caused the media to label him as a “Failed Galactico”. After keeping his head down and focusing on his improvement in different countries and leagues due to loan deals, he has finally returned to Real Madrid. There are a few questions on everyone’s minds right now, though.
What would be the point of him returning to this team if he doesn’t get the playing time he deserves? Well, if Zinedine Zidane didn’t plan on using him, he wouldn’t have halved his loan term. (Zidane has called on players he hasn’t used before, but it seems far-fetched that Ødegaard wouldn’t play, given how many problems he solves for the team.) Well, for starters: He has started two of four La Liga games for the Whites. The question that does make you wonder, however, is, whose minutes will he be taking down the line?
Let’s get the easiest one out of the way. Casemiro is a defensive midfielder, and Toni Kroos is a definite starter. No one dares to replace him right now. That leaves us with three players: Isco Alarcon, Luka Modric, and Federico Valverde.
At the moment — Ødegaard is a better player than Isco. The Spaniard hasn’t hit his form of the 2016-17 season in a couple of years, at least. His contribution has regressed significantly, scoring just a single goal in the league last season, and providing two assists — both of which were on the last matchday, after the league had concluded. In all competitions, he had a measly three goals and two assists in 30 appearances and averages one key pass per game. His role has also changed: He isn’t a number 10 anymore. He has become more of a central midfielder. If you play a 4-3-3, Isco plays on the left-hand side of the midfield and Ødegaard is better on the right, so Ødegaard and Isco wouldn’t necessarily compete in such a formation.
In a diamond, an attacking midfielder such as Ødegaard would be much more beneficial than Isco. For comparison, Ødegaard scored seven goals and assisted nine more in 36 games, and averaged two key passes per game (fourth highest in the league). He also averaged those numbers after playing 1400 more minutes than Isco, which shows consistency. He’s also much more direct offensively than Isco: Last season in La Liga, Ødegaard passed the ball into the opposition’s penalty area 73 times (2.6 per 90 minutes) whereas Isco did the same 26 times (1.98 times per 90 minutes, again, in lesser 90’s.).
Isco has a lot of great qualities on the ball. (He’s a great dribbler and he’s press-resistant.) But, when you look at Ødegaard, he’s great at those aspects too. He’s a very skilful dribbler and quicker on the ball than Isco. More importantly, he too is press resistant, which will come in handy when ‘Los Blancos’ play against high pressing teams like Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and even Eibar — who can cause Madrid problems.
He can drop deep and help the team escape the press — something that has been problematic for Madrid for the past two years (Ajax in 2019, Manchester City in 2020). That, combined with his ability to create chances consistently and rapidly, his footballing IQ, and off-ball movement, just makes him a whole lot better. He gives you hope.
Luka Modric is 35 years old. He has been declining for a couple of years now, and although last season he was somewhat reminiscent of the player we know and love (especially post-lockdown, where he looked great for the majority of games. He has also started this season in fantastic shape and form, which I’ve written about here), he’s still not the same, and still hasn’t done that consistently. ‘Los Blancos’ need someone worthy of the crown that Modric wore for the past six years. They need someone to do everything that Luka did every time he played.
They need someone to create, to be more direct, to be the linking pin of the midfield and attack. All this could be executed by Ødegaard in a far better way than any other midfielder that Real Madrid have right now. That is because The Norwegian was born for that role, the same way he was born to wear that crown. At the tender age of 21, he is already an elite playmaker and has excellent vision as we have seen time and time again in his loan spells at Vitesse and at Real Sociedad. Probably the best one, though, was against Alaves in the league last season.
Modric being there for one final year as a mentor sounds great. No matter how old the Croatian is, Ødegaard can still learn a lot about the game from him. This also gives Modric a chance to take the backseat and have more of a “teacher’s role” — something he has talked about in the past. To be mentored by a player like him is going to be massively helpful for Ødegaard. He is very young and has every bit of potential to become an all-time great like the former Ballon d’Or.
Fede Valverde is a fantastic player. He showed glimpses of his abilities under Santiago Solari and Julen Lopetegui in 2018/19. In the limited time he got to play, he was decent, but his ceiling wasn’t considered to be very high. That changed when Zidane was appointed. Both him and Zidane repeatedly said that he will be counted on. It did happen, and we saw the real Fede Valverde.
This guy is like a giant ball of energy transformed into a human being. He never feels exasperated. We’ve seen him run at defenders on the 80th minute even when Madrid are comfortably in the driver’s seat. That shows hunger. Fede doesn’t decelerate all game. According to StatsBomb, he averages 21.02 pressures per game, which is 5.28 more than average.
Furthermore, he is quite an underrated passer of the ball. He had 88.2% passing accuracy in La Liga last season, which was the fourth-highest on the team. He is a pure box-to-box midfielder who’s never scared of doing the dirty work. He goes into challenges, wins duels, and even takes one for the team, if need be. For reference, his foul on Alvaro Morata during the Spanish Super Cup final is probably still fresh on everyone’s minds.
This is why it will be so interesting to see Ødegaard and Fede fight for this spot even if they are not identical players. Everyone would be looking forward to seeing how Zidane manages to give both of these talented midfielders enough opportunities. It depends on the type of team that Real Madrid are playing against. For example, if Zidane wants more flexibility in the midfield, then Fede could get the nod. Valverde is very versatile and can play in all three midfield positions.
He can drop deep to help the defense, and covers for Casemiro from time to time, especially whenever Zidane decides to use the Brazillian as a weapon in front of goal. Fede has even played as a defensive midfielder, to a certain degree, when Casemiro isn’t there. Other than that, he’s an impressive ball-carrier and tends to help escape the press whenever required. He helps progress the ball towards the attacking third and usually tends to stay comparatively higher up the pitch than players like Modric or Kroos.
If Zidane opts for a more offensive approach in a game, Ødegaard is the one he would go for, especially against teams who generally play a high line as he can capitalize on that massively. Martin can improve on his already brilliant numbers with a far better team around him. He is a supreme chance creator, on top of being very direct and vertical with his passes — something that Real Madrid need right now. He can sling passes into the attacking third and open up the opposition’s defence at will. Defensively he won’t be as good as Valverde, but the things he does in the opponent’s half will make up for it, and then some.
Ødegaard is also a very underrated presser. He works hard off the ball and is often seen tracking back to help the defence. Because of that, Zidane has an option to ask Ødegaard to have a role like Kevin De Bruyne has at Manchester City (on paper, at least) — obliterating the opposition’s defence but also tracking back to support his own, when required.
Zidane can also come up with a system that results in Ødegaard being free of defensive duties but at the same time having enough cover for him to roam around freely in the attacking third. This system will consist of Ødegaard and Valverde coexisting. Zidane can roll out a 4-4-2 with the Norweigian operating on the tip of the diamond with Federico on the right side (As he did against Betis). This allows Ødegaard to do his thing without having to worry about his defensive presence because the Uruguayan will be there to do all that.
This formation, however, will result in a lack of width due to the fact that there would be no wingers. If that becomes an issue in a certain game, then the team’s shape can change to a 4-3-3 without issues as Ødegaard can play on the right-wing as well. Because of that, Zidane has a couple of options as to where he wants Ødegaard to play and he should try to implement both.
Even though it will be a big headache for Zinedine Zidane to juggle these rotations, with Ødegaard in the squad, he has added one more layer of versatility to his team, which should make Real Madrid’s midfield more dynamic than it was last season.