Hear or read the name Martin Ødegaard and the initial reaction is to wonder what might have been.
He was the history-making 15-year-old Norwegian wonderkid with the world at his feet. A midfielder so coveted that Europe’s biggest clubs were falling over themselves to sign him. He trained with Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City and Bayern Munich.
“Obviously a beautiful bride and many grooms are waiting on the doorstep,” quipped Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. “Maybe we are the best-looking groom.” They weren’t.
Instead, the young blonde opted for Real Madrid, who paid €4million to Strømsgodset, for whom Ødegaard made his debut for aged 15 years and 118 days. He would earn a reported £80,000 a week.
Four months later he made his debut for Los Blancos. He was introduced as a 58th-minute substitute for a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, the then-reigning Ballon d’Or winner. In doing so Ødegaard became the youngest player to play for Real Madrid, aged 16 years and 157 days.
Yet that game is the only La Liga fixture in which he has featured for Madrid. It also accounts for exactly half the appearances he has made for the club.
“He could be the best player in the world, but I don’t care because he was not a player who I asked for,” Carlo Ancelotti, Real Madrid manager when Ødegaard joined the club wrote in his book Quiet Leadership. “That signing was to do with PR.”
Those comments, and the midfielder’s lack of impact at the Bernabéu, is why it’s so easy to mentally have written Ødegaard off. However, he is still just 19 years old. There is still plenty of time to realise his potential.
Perhaps wisely, he’s spent much of the last two years away from the glare of Real Madrid. He had an 18-month loan spell at Dutch side Heerenveen and played regular first-team football, featuring in 43 games for the club.
“They [Real Madrid] come to watch my games and follow me closely,” Ødegaard told Norwegian television channel TV 2 while at Heerenveen. “They said that they would be monitoring how I am getting along and say that they still want to invest in me.”
The European champions backed up his words last year. His original contract expired in the summer of 2018 but, according to Marca, his deal was extended until the summer of 2021.
In August, he agreed to a season-long loan deal with Vitesse. The Dutch side, an unofficial sister-club for Chelsea, are renowned for giving young loanees an opportunity to shine and did so last term with Mason Mount.
So how has Ødegaard fared? Well, he has featured in nine of a possible ten matches and has been used in a variety of positions – from a No.10 to a wide forward.
In recent weeks, however, he’s made the right-wing berth his own, starting five of the previous six matches. The most recent of which was against Eredivisie side Heracles Almelo in the KNVB Cup, a game in which Ødegaard scored the opener.
Remember Martin Ødegaard?
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It’s a good finish – although the goalkeeper should have done better – and is representative of Ødegaard’s growing confidence and comfort in the side.
There are several aspects of his game that must be improved and threatening the opposition goal is certainly one of them. In the Eredivisie this season he is only averaging 1.29 scoring attempts per 90, a tally bettered by 76 other attacking players.
Yet there are plenty of positives. He’s 18th for successful take-ons per 90 (1.85) and, a sign of his technical quality, is ninth for set-play key passes (0.74 per 90).
More impressive though is his defensive work, not something you would perhaps associate with a slight winger. Yet his tackles (2.41) and interceptions (1.11) per 90 are higher than 90 per cent of Eredivisie attackers.
Ødegaard’s ambition has dwindled. The desire to make it at the elite level, and with Real Madrid, remains. He said as much last year while at Heerenveen: “I want to return to Spain as a mature and better player. Because that remains the big goal: a first-team spot at Real Madrid.”
On the basis of his displays for Vitesse, there is still some way to go. Yet the teenager is still learning the game, he will get better with time.
Will he ever be good enough for Real Madrid? That remains to be seen. But instead of wondering what Ødegaard might have been, perhaps think about what he can still become.