Any doubts whether a young Martin Odegaard could shoulder the responsibility of the captain’s armband for Arsenal have been erased in half a season after he guided them to the top of the Premier League with a seven-point lead.
Odegaard, who turned 24 last month, has been Arsenal’s most influential player this season, oozing confidence in midfield and fuelling the club’s first real title challenge in years.
He leads the club’s scoring charts with seven league goals and has five assists to boot, eclipsing his overall tally from the last campaign in just 15 games.
He was front and centre again on Saturday as Arsenal extended their lead over reigning champions Manchester City with a 4-2 win at Brighton & Hove Albion to end 2022 on a high and underline their title credentials.
The Norwegian scored Arsenal’s second but impressed even more with a jaw-dropping assist from his own half for the fourth goal: a first-time through ball that carved open the defence and set Gabriel Martinelli on his way.
“Martin Odegaard knows what he’s doing before this ball comes … A lot of people don’t see that pass, he’s probably the only player on the pitch who sees that,” said Sky Sports pundit Paul Merson.
“(City’s) Kevin De Bruyne sees it, Odegaard sees it. But I don’t think any other player in the Premier League sees it open up.”
Having initially signed the midfielder on loan from Real Madrid, the 35 million euros ($37.46 million) Arsenal paid to make his move permanent now looks a steal.
The fee was cheaper than the 42.5 million pounds ($51.40 million) Arsenal paid in 2013 to sign Mesut Ozil from the Spanish club – the same team where Odegaard was hardly given the opportunity to establish himself.
Mikel Arteta’s side had lacked a genuine playmaker since Ozil’s acrimonious exit but Odegaard gives the north London club much more than just a creative outlet in midfield with a sharp eye for a pass.
The Norway international is not averse to dropping deep to help out the defence, be it by providing an escape route under pressure from the opponents’ press or by getting his socks dirty in winning the ball back.
“He’s doing what we want him to do, to decide football matches and work really hard and deliver to the team what it needs in each moment of every game, which is different,” Arteta said.
Odegaard’s transformation has drawn parallels with former club captain Cesc Fabregas, who was tasked with leading the side at the tender age of 21 by ex-manager Arsene Wenger.
“I was desperate to sign him (when he was 15), fortunately, he is here now. He really is like a young Cesc Fabregas,” Wenger told TV2.
“He has developed into a complete player. He’s a very calm player who analyses the game well. He has his feet firmly planted on the ground.”
Arsenal had been looking to appoint a full-time captain after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was stripped of the armband over a disciplinary breach last season.
And Arteta had no qualms about handing Odegaard the responsibility despite the presence of more senior players.
“He has represented the values of this football club, the team… in the best possible way,” Arteta said. “He’s also the captain of his national team and I think it was the right call.”