Inside Europe: Martin Odegaard is trying to be more than a child prodigy

Updated: October 7, 2019

Welcome to Sportsplay’s weekly column on European football. Every Monday, Anthony Lopopolo will break down the weekend that was in the continent’s top leagues.

It seems so long ago when Martin Odegaard, at the time a baby-faced 16-year-old with newfound fame and riches, subbed in for Cristiano Ronaldo. With that brief cameo in an otherwise forgettable drubbing of Getafe, Odegaard became the youngest debutant in Real Madrid history.

Everything happened so fast. Odegaard was just 15 starts into his professional career when Madrid came calling, and with a simple signature, he and his father/advisor, Hans Erik, became millionaires. Hans Erik scored a job at Madrid’s academy and reportedly outearned Zinedine Zidane, who was coaching the club’s youth team. Time magazine listed his prodigiously talented son as one of its 30 most influential teens of 2015 alongside Malia Obama, Malala Yousafzai, and Kylie Jenner.

“We have many, many hopes placed in you,” Madrid director Emilio Butragueno said at the introductory press conference.

That was back in January 2015. Odegaard only made one more appearance for Madrid before vanishing from the spotlight. Football’s next big thing came and went without anyone noticing.

Similar situations have killed careers. Freddy Adu never recovered. But Odegaard used the obscurity to his advantage. He went to the Netherlands, joining Heerenveen and then Vitesse on loan, and found a league that invested time and energy into young players. The more expansive and open style of play in the Eredivisie suited Odegaard and allowed him to try new things. He finished the 2018-19 campaign with a single-season career high in goals (9), assists (12), and key passes per 90 minutes (3.7).

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Odegaard could’ve joined Ajax in the summer and continued his education in familiar surroundings. But he wanted to test himself. At 20 years old, he saw Real Sociedad as the next natural step toward an eventual return to Madrid.

After signing a contract extension with the 13-time European champions, Odegaard agreed to spend the next two seasons in San Sebastian, affording himself the chance to embrace the Spanish culture and adapt to the rigors of a league he’s always wanted to play in. Space is harder to find on La Liga’s pitches than it is in the Eredivisie and defenders are less forgiving, but through eight matches, Odegaard has handled everything. He’s been praised on social media for his touch and vision, and he was named La Liga’s Player of the Month for September.

This is not a child prodigy anymore. Odegaard has shown maturity – not only as a footballer but as a professional. He puts in extra work at the gym and contributes in all phases of the pitch. Real Sociedad regard him as a leader, or else they wouldn’t give him the ball so much.

La Real are up to fifth in La Liga thanks in part to Odegaard’s assured performances. The ingenuity he displayed in a 2-0 win over Atletico Madrid and a 3-0 victory against Deportivo Alaves was remarkable. He carved up opponents with penetrating passes and worked his magic in little half-spaces. Not to be outdone by anyone, Odegaard even showed pride in tackling, sprinting 15 yards to win a footrace with Thomas Lemar, Atletico’s pacy winger.

There’s a purpose about his game that suggests Odegaard is, finally, for real. It’s as if he’s trying to make up for all those years spent in the third tier with the Castilla while other teenagers stuck their landings in the top flight. He had faded from public view by the time Kylian Mbappe came and conquered pretty much everything that came his way. Madrid seemed to move on as well, signing Vinicius Junior in 2017 for €45 million. Odegaard had only cost them a reported €4 million.

At one point, Odegaard reportedly refused to train with the Castilla. Written in his contract was a clause that allowed him to practice with the senior squad. After sharing the pitch with Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Sergio Ramos, he clearly felt the youth team was beneath him.

Odegaard was benched by Zidane. It was an early and important reminder that success is earned, even if it’s expected.

It was also one of the many humbling experiences that shaped the Odegaard we see today.

Further reading

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Lewandowski back to his best

With 11 goals in seven Bundesliga matches, Robert Lewandowski has emerged as the early favorite to win the Golden Boot. Although he couldn’t prevent Bayern Munich’s first loss of the season on Saturday, Lewandowski showed incredible commitment, making 56 touches and scoring from a header. He’s converted 32% of his shots in the Bundesliga – an incredible return for any striker – and he’s happy to contribute in wider areas of the pitch. Lewandowski is becoming a more complete player at 31 years old than he ever was before, and he’s still finding time to do damage in the penalty area. All but one of his goals have come from inside the 18-yard box.

Juventus beginning to take shape

Maurizio Sarri needed time to recalibrate Juventus’ default setting. So accustomed to Massimiliano Allegri’s risk-free football, the Bianconeri spent the summer learning to take a more aggressive approach. And now, we’re seeing the fruits of Sarri’s early labor. Juventus returned to the top of the Serie A standings with a 2-1 win over Inter, and they did it by playing quicker and shorter passes through the middle. Paulo Dybala was at the center of the exchanges, and Miralem Pjanic often laid the foundation for Juventus’ sweeping moves. Gonzalo Higuain‘s winner was Sarri-ball in a nutshell. In mere seconds, Juventus cut through Inter’s midfield with a series of incisive passes and set the Argentine on his way.

Monaco can’t get any worse

Unless Monaco plug the gaps in their susceptible defense, another relegation battle surely awaits. Leonardo Jardim’s men have shipped 19 goals in their opening nine matches, the principality club’s heaviest total since the 1975-76 season. Monaco certainly have game-changers who can paper over the cracks – Islam Slimani is adapting quickly to Ligue 1 and Wissam Ben Yedder is a proven goalscorer with European pedigree – but there are too many deficiencies to ignore. Center-back Kamil Glik is a shadow of his former self, lacking the backbone that defined his earlier years, and none of his teammates have stepped up in his figurative absence.

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