“Experience is not just about age,” Martin Ødegaard reflects. “It’s also about what you’ve done.” He is talking about a precocious Arsenal side but, consciously or otherwise, has picked a turn of phrase that could sum up his entire career. Ødegaard does not turn 25 until December but has amassed the experience, good and somewhat more complicated, of a veteran. It has all coalesced to form the Premier League’s best playmaker, a blindingly assured talent who at once radiates freshness and sagacity, and means there was never any doubt surrounding the latest milestone he has passed.
Ødegaard has just signed a new five-year contract at Arsenal, where he is hitting the heights predicted when he was barely in his teens. When he joined on loan in January 2021 there were questions to answer: years of being shipped around by Real Madrid had stifled him and, by his own admission, some of the spark had gone. But Mikel Arteta found a player who had become sufficiently hardened to throw off any baggage, quickly securing him to a longer deal and making him captain the following year. He has put down roots, buying a house close to Arsenal’s base, and the serenity suits him. Player, manager, club and surroundings sit sweetly in harmony and nobody was going to break the spell.
“I felt connected and at home here since the first day,” he says. “Also I was moving around a lot and struggling to really settle, so I felt like I needed a place to come, settle down and kind of find a home. That’s what I did here, so it was easy for me to commit.”
Nothing ever quite gelled for Ødegaard after he arrived in Madrid, shortly after turning 16, in 2015. Segunda Division B football with Castilla, the reserve side, proved of limited use and he had only played nine first-team games by the time of his departure. Even if various short-term moves, in particular a stint at Real Sociedad, were more fruitful the road to fulfilment looked hazard-strewn. There was a sense nobody quite knew what to do with him.
“I was very young, stuck between the first and second teams, then I was moving around on loans here and there,” he says. “At Arsenal I’ve always had this special feeling. Even before I came here, I remember playing Fifa and I was always Arsenal. I had a good feeling about the club and brought myself here.”
Did he ever come close to thinking he would fall short? “No, I didn’t doubt myself, but of course there are moments when you maybe lose your confidence a little bit, you’re not in your best place and don’t perform as you want to. But I always kept that self-belief and I was always sure I was going to turn things around.
“You have to be good at not focusing too much on the outside world. I think hard work always pays off, so I was pretty calm.”
Ødegaard exudes self-possession now. His words are as carefully chosen and firmly meant as the passes and manipulations of space that bind so many of Arsenal’s attacking patterns. On the pitch his grace has been augmented by a sharpened bite. String-pulling was always his strong suit but last season he scored 15 times in the Premier League. This year he already has two and it spoke volumes that, when he wound up to strike crisply from 20 yards against PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday night, there was little doubt he would open his Champions League account.
“I think it’s a great number for a midfielder,” he says. “I knew I had it in me. I have always scored a lot of goals since I was young, then for a few years I didn’t score too many, but I was always pretty confident in front of goal.
“It’s a natural thing for me to come from the midfield. A late arrival is hard for the defenders to defend, and the midfielders have to track back to stop that. It can be tricky. I think it is just a natural thing for me to be there.”
Arteta has unlocked Ødegaard, who says the timing of those late runs owes much to his manager’s influence. While the Spaniard gives little away in his public proclamations, tales of his rhetorical power in front of players are plentiful. “I think it’s just the way he speaks, the way he sees football. He sees so many details you don’t even think about. The way he explains it to you, it makes sense. He is capable of making you understand football in a different way.”
That does not necessarily extend to sketching out all of the “36 different formations” Arteta claimed his side had adopted last month against Fulham. “I think it is a lot in his head and I don’t think he’s telling us everything he’s thinking about before a game,” Ødegaard says. “With time you learn how to approach different games. If they play this way or with five at the back, or four, we do some small changes. He’s good at keeping it short for us and making everyone understand what he wants.”
Captaincy brings out the best in Ødegaard, who joined Bukayo Saka on this year’s Ballon d’Or shortlist. He is no chest beater but an open, receptive manner draws contrasts with some of his recent predecessors. His willing presence at club events, and chatty demeanour during them, is well noted and so is the circuit he takes, after every home game, of the Emirates pitch to thank Arsenal’s public. He leads another vibrant group in the Norway national team and his relative youth has meant honing leadership techniques of his own.
“I was still young so I had to do it my way,” he says of receiving the armband. “That was the most important thing. I think I’m growing with the responsibility. People always tell you what a captain should do but for me it was important to do it my way, and in a natural way. Sometimes you do things people don’t see but are still important. That’s been the key thing for me.”
Doing it his way: that could be another inscription on Ødegaard’s journey to the top. Enough young prospects have drawn breathless hype and interminable YouTube compilations only to slip between the cracks. But the youth who was several steps ahead of the rest for Strømsgodset is now outpacing his competition in the Premier League’s higher reaches; when Arsenal host Spurs on Sunday he will hope his happy record in north London derbies – five games, four wins, two goals – continues and it has been hard, even in their London Colney bubble, to escape the anticipation. “You can just feel it at the training ground, on social media,” he says.
Ødegaard has dealt with pressure and expectation for most of his life; the bumps having been surmounted, they are no longer unwelcome acquaintances. Arsenal have to handle both in bucketloads now that Arteta has transformed them into contenders but Ødegaard, signed up anew for what should be his peak years, is ready for more.
“I personally enjoy that pressure. No matter the pressure from outside, I will always put more on myself and I think the team all enjoy it. We want to be there at the top, fighting to win things. That’s where we’re going to be so we have to focus on the right things and I’m sure good things will come.”