Rarely, if ever, had such a broad audience been so aware of such a young talent at such an early stage, a genuine ‘wonderkid’ who had made his first-team debut for Stromsgodset at 13, had his pick of Europe’s elite clubs as a schoolboy, and whose path to stardom had been ratified by Football Manager enthusiasts around the world.
Odegaard arrived at the Bernabeu burdened by a set of expectations that, frankly, would have been impossible to fulfil, but there were times during his stay in Madrid where it did not look as if he would even get close.
Now, though, Odegaard returns to Norway for tonight’s Europa League meeting with Bodo/Glimt as one of the Premier League’s standout midfielders, and, according to the man himself, playing the best football of his career.
“I think so, I think I’ve developed a lot the last few years,” said Odegaard. “I’ve always been good on the ball but I feel like I’m developing different sides of my game now as well.
“I’m really happy to be part of this team and the project, happy with where we are at the moment, but we want more, of course.”
Since his arrival at Arsenal in January 2021, Odegaard has grown with and at the helm of Arteta’s young side, made a leader even before he signed permanently, the manager’s tactical marshal on the field, and eventually club captain. This season, the 23-year-old has finally gained wider recognition as perhaps the vital cog in a side in rampant mood at the top of the Premier League.
“That’s his journey,” Arteta said yesterday. “He started to get the spotlight very, very early in his career and probably that’s why he is so mature at the age he is.
“He’s been around for so long that sometimes we forget how old he is. It’s his journey, he could not pick it. He was so good at that age, he got a lot of attention and he’s dealt with I think in a really positive way.”
Odegaard has played in his homeland numerous times for the national team since he left as a teenager, but never before in a club game.
Bodo/Glimt have urged their fans not to wear Arsenal colours to tonight’s game and instead get behind the home side, but the split loyalties prompted by the local adoration for Norway’s captain are clear. As Odegaard arrived to give a press conference yesterday, a large crowd of children, several in replica shirts, gathered on the pitch adjacent to the Aspmyra Stadion, despite driving rain and chilly conditions north of the Arctic circle.
Odegaard’s last appearance here was as a 15-year-old. Should he feature tonight, the people of Bodo will see first-hand exactly the player this ‘wonderkid’ has become.