The Scandinavian nations have consistently produced many great talents, and Martin Ødegaard is the latest, and most exciting player to come from this region. Ben Cullimore has a Scout Report on the young Strømsgodset IF talent.
Who is Martin Ødegaard?
On April 13th 2014, a small boy with shaggy blonde hair and a baby face made history. 72 minutes into Norwegian club Strømsgodset’s league clash at home to Aalesund, Martin Ødegaard made his way onto the pitch to rapturous applause to become the youngster ever Tippeligaen debutant at just 15 years and 118 days old. Ronny Deila, then the manager of the Drammen-based club, knew exactly what the youngster was capable of. He had described him as having the ability to become “the best in the world”, and it did not take long for Ødegaard to show the Norwegian public just how special he was. He skipped around players with ease, darting through a sea of orange shirts as if they were ghosts, exhibiting the confidence of a seasoned professional against men double his age. For 18 minutes, he captivated the 6,721 fans inside Marienlyst Stadion, and he left his mark on the world in perfect fashion, skillfully twisting and turning past three Aalesund defenders before teeing up his teammate Thomas Sørum to score Strømsgodset’s second goal in the final minute of the game.
Just over a month later, he added to his previous broken record by smashing another. At the start of injury time in his side’s league clash against Sarpsborg 08, he became the youngster ever Tippeligaen goalscorer, playing a wonderful one-two with veteran striker Péter Kovács – whom he had replaced in his first senior appearance – on the edge of the penalty area before firing a fantastic low shot into the bottom right hand corner of the goal. The crowd went wild, bouncing up and down in unison before rushing towards the edge of the pitch to embrace the youngster in their arms. If they were unsure about the extent of his talents before that day, there were no longer any doubts to be had, and from then onwards the only way was up for the Norwegian wonderkid.
As the season wore on, his game time increased, and with it so did his prominence in an impressive Strømsgodset side. Deila left for Celtic, leaving assistant manager David Nielsen to take the reins, and the Dane made sure that Ødegaard played a vital role in the reigning champions’ side. He scored his second goal, the winner, against Haugesund at the start of June before putting in one of the best performances of any Tippeligaen player at the end of July against Sandnes Ulf, scoring the game’s opening goal after just 12 minutes before going on to assist two further goals in a hard-earned 3-1 victory for his side.
Unsurprisingly, Ødegaard’s magical performance in that clash kick-started rumours of his possible inclusion in the national squad for their upcoming friendlies against the United Arab Emirates and England, one that would have been part of a meteoric rise to prominence for a player that had only made his debut for the under-17 side six months earlier. And that is exactly what happened, as he featured for the entirety of the goalless draw against the United Arab Emirates in Stavanger to become the youngster ever player to earn a cap for Norway, beating the previous holder Tormod Kjellsen, who had held the record since 1910, by 98 days. September then saw him feature in a 2-1 win against Bulgaria in the qualifying round for the 2016 European Championship, and, as a result, another record was broken; this time, he had become the youngest ever player to play in a European Championship qualifier. All in all, 2014 has been a rather good year for the youngster, to say the least.
Style, Strengths and Weaknesses
Ødegaard is a wonderful, naturally gifted attacking midfielder who displays fantastic skill and vision. When played in the space behind a lone striker, which seems to be his preferred role, he is deadly, picking apart the defence with well-timed through-balls and lightning-quick runs into the penalty area. He boasts great intelligence and understanding, both with and without the ball. The latter discipline was a key characteristic of Norwegian footballers in the heyday of the 1990s, and Ødegaard seems to be resurrecting that skill with his vision and work rate.
His small frame also works to his advantage, allowing him to twist and turn around players far larger than himself with relative ease, and he is also able to use his body shape to squeeze into defensive gaps that others are unable to fit into. Combine this with his pace and trickery and you have got a world-class midfielder in the making.
Despite only making his Tippeligaen debut little over seven months ago, Ødegaard’s fantastic skill and vision has been evident to see in the relatively short amount of time that he has been in the public eye on the main stage. In the 23 appearances that he made in the league for Strømsgodset during the 2014 season (15 of which saw the youngster included in the squad from the start), he scored five goals and picked up six assists, a wonderful record for a player so young and, compared to his peers, inexperienced.
He has shown that he is perfectly able to hold his own against several of Strømsgodset’s best, outscoring both Gustav Wikheim and Øyvind Storflor this season, whilst contributing just one fewer assist than the latter player, despite playing almost 600 minutes less than the experienced 34-year-old. It is this impressive vision and understanding that drove first Deila and then Nielsen to deploy Ødegaard as Strømsgodset’s main advanced playmaker, operating just behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation but with licence to roam, and this freedom to express himself has not only paid dividends for Strømsgodset but has also helped the youngster’s development as he quickly learns more about his strengths and weaknesses through a highly commendable belief in trying everything and refusing to show any fear or complacency against his opponents.
His knowledge and excellent reading of the game means that he has an almost telepathic understanding of where he needs to be and at what time, dropping deep to pick up the ball before darting from side to side in an attempt to find that perfect pass to guide his side to victory.
The next step in Ødegaard’s development will be crucial, and with a plethora of top clubs fighting tooth and nail to secure his signature (there were representatives from 30 of the biggest clubs in the world at Strømsgodset’s game at home to Sogndal at the start of August) the world is his oyster. However, the worry is that a step up too soon will do more harm than good, as he has clearly benefited from receiving a consistently large amount of game time from Strømsgodset in Tippeligaen this year, as not only do the club value his talent for their own benefit, they are also well aware that, as one of the most exciting talents to come out of Norway in recent memory, careful and considerate development is key if he is to blossom into the kind of player that he is clearly talented enough to become.
Per-Mathis Høgmo, the coach of the Norway national team, recently reiterated these sentiments in a warning to the youngster not to get carried away by the big money deals that are being thrown at him from all angles: “He [Ødegaard] is a special talent, but it is not easy to say what would be the next best move. He has two choices: whether he goes to a mid-range club that helps his development, such as Ajax, or he goes directly to an absolute top club. You can see that most players that take the second route do not usually succeed.”
Many others within the game have echoed Høgmo’s suggestion that a club like Ajax may suit Ødegaard’s needs, and the Eredivisie has a proven track record of helping talented young players to nurture and grow without throwing them into the deep end too early. This has particularly been the case with many of Ødegaard’s Nordic contemporaries, such as Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, who is currently at Ajax after moving to the Netherlands from his native Iceland in 2010, and fellow Icelandic striker Alfreð Finnbogason, who spent two years at Heerenveen, where he set the league on fire by scoring 53 goals in 65 appearances, before moving to Real Sociedad in July of this year. Tottenham Hotspur’s Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen also benefited from five years at Ajax, three of which he spent as an important part of the senior side before his £11 million move to the Premier League.
Luckily for Ødegaard, he has what many other young footballers do not: a father who is not only an ex-professional but also arguably one of the most supportive and sensible parents on the planet. Hans Erik, who played for Strømsgodset between 1993 and 2003 and is currently the assistant coach at the second-tier Norwegian club Mjøndalen, is well aware that the next step that his son takes is definitely the most important, and he has been quick to assure all of those who are concerned that he and Ødegaard Jr have a clear plan for the future, one that has his son’s development at the forefront of their minds heading into what is sure to be one of the most exciting periods of his life.
In an age in which the prominence of Norwegian footballers on the European stage is diminishing (just one Norwegian, Crystal Palace’s Brede Hangeland, now plies his trade in the Premier League), Martin Ødegaard is a breath of fresh air. His incredible talent, not to mention his down-to-earth demeanour and easily likeable character, has made him a star at home, and one really does get the feeling that the entire nation is behind him, urging him on to fully achieve his potential and put Norway back on the footballing map. The next few years are going to be incredibly interesting, and it is absolutely certain that we will be seeing a lot more of the 15-year-old superstar in the near future as he makes his mark on the rest of Europe. The question is: what club will he be representing whilst he does so?
“I was there for Ødegaard’s first start in the Norwegian Tippeliga (against Vålerenga) and it became clear that he is something truly special. His team lost that day, but 15-year old Ødegaard was arguably the best player on the pitch. He has the vision, the calmness on the ball, the ability to find space for himself, can play the perfect pass and have also shown he can finish it himself. Compared to Messi by several, but I think he has a bit of David Silva about him as well. Without a shadow of doubt the biggest talent I have ever seen in the flesh.”
Written by Ben Cullimore