Martin Ødegaard and Arsenal: A Perfect Fit

Tony Adams was just before my time. The man nicknamed Mr. Arsenal, who captained the club for 14 years, retired the summer I started watching football, having just led the team to their second Premier League and FA Cup Double in just five years. The armband was handed to one Patrick Vieira. If ever a player was a “complete midfielder” while being wholly unique and escaping definition, it was this system-breaking, almost-mythical Frenchman who not only joined Arsenal just because compatriot Arsene Wenger was set to take over, but also embodied Le Prof’s intense 21st-century transition-heavy, one-two-touch football that required great technical and physical ability. Vieira’s final kick of the ball for the club would be, incidentally, the winning penalty in a penalty shootout against Manchester United in the FA Cup final—Arsenal’s last trophy until a Mikel-Arteta-led side won the 2014 FA Cup, nine years later.

Prior to Mikel Arteta, there were many who bore the responsibility of the position, some much better suited to it than others, but in the increasingly turbulent seasons just prior to and after Wenger’s departure and when Arteta took over the reins in late 2019, the armband had somewhat lost its value, flitting between players, and an appeasement rather than a deserved, earned, reward to a worthy candidate.

When the Spaniard returned to Arsenal with the weight of expectation on his young shoulders, he also brought with him the concept of non-negotiables—any player who couldn’t live up to them was out; there was too much to lose if the rebuild didn’t go to plan. A long-term project like the one he’d accepted came with its own set of challenges, but he knew better than anyone that it would have to be broken apart in the short-term so that it could be moulded back into what we all wanted: a team capable of competing for, and hopefully winning, the best and biggest of the trophies on offer, but also doing it The Arsenal Way.


Martin Ødegaard landed in North London on loan in early January 2021. The narrative that had elevated him to one of the top young talents to watch out for simmered low. He’d failed to get regular playing time at Real Madrid, who sent him out on loan twice in the Netherlands and, later, within Spain, where he had varying degrees of success, but it was nowhere close to what everyone expected from him. More importantly, I suspect, what he expected from himself. With the standards he’d held close even as a boy, spending countless, determined, obsessed hours training with his father, friends, and alone in Norway’s south-eastern river and port city of Drammen where he grew up.

Personally, I was enthusiastic. My Norwegian friend had followed Martin’s career through the youth ranks, had excitedly texted me when he signed for Real, and now assured me that he just needed some time and the right club to take the next developmental leap—my friend believed, correctly as it turned out, that Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal Project would offer him both.

Ødegaard’s loan spell had plenty of glimpses that showed the potential Arteta and Edu saw and highlighted why they wanted him at the club: football intelligence, workrate off the ball and in tracking back, the desire to create for his teammates, discipline, his down-to-earth and wise-beyond-his-years qualities. I hoped for a miracle in the summer, heartened that he seemed keen on continuing in North London, praying to the football gods, because here was a future leader and a world-class footballer in the making with a ceiling so high that it was non-existent.

It was a quiet first full season for the Norwegian midfielder, though he did score 7 goals and assisted four. But those who regularly watched him play saw his influence on the pitch and in the dressing room—Mikel Arteta was certainly impressed enough to name him third captain, and even handed him the armband at St. Mary’s in late April 2022. That the game ended in a 0-1 loss was a team effort, or lack thereof; that the season ended with them letting slip a coveted, within-reach Champions League spot, to Tottenham no less, was even more so a collective dejection that this young team would have to learn from.

In the summer, following the departures of both Aubameyang and Lacazette, Arsenal Football Club announced a new club captain. Twenty-three-year-old Ødegaard proved instrumental to our surprise title charge, and, despite the eventual failure to cross the finish line, led us to our first Champions League qualification in six years. On a personal level, he tied with Gabriel Martinelli for club top-scorer with 15 goals (7 assists), becoming Arsenal’s first central midfielder since a certain Cesc Fabregas Soler in 2009-2010 to achieve those numbers. He also went on to win Arsenal’s Player of the Season with 55% of the votes, ahead of Bukayo Saka in second and Gabriel Martinelli in third. On a fan level, the joy in the past two seasons has been unparalleled irrespective of the heartbreak.

In March 2024, Ødegaard’s just coming off a Player of the Match performance in a 6-0 away drubbing of Sheffield United where his fifth-minute goal opened the floodgates. The goal is his sixth in the current Premier League campaign, and while any goals by the Arsenal captain are a cause for beaming smiles, I’m more interested in talking about his other statistics.

According to Squawka, Ødegaard currently ranks first for successful passes into the penalty area and through balls played across Europe’s top seven divisions. In Arsenal’s 6-0 demolition of West Ham, he became the first player in Europe’s top seven leagues to create more than 50 chances from open play, and his minutes-per-chance ratio bettered only by Mesut Ozil and Cesc Fabregas since Opta records began.

But, of course, the real ones also see what the casual eye can sometimes gloss over. The impact of his clever movement, how often he provides the pre-assist or creates spaces and chances that kick off a goal-scoring move, his ability to spot and execute the perfect pass a few beats ahead of everyone. How his continued development under Arteta to sharpen previously rough areas of his game, his positional evolution (a combination of a no. 8 and no. 10 who covers a lot of ground and is now also a goal-threat) has not just mirrored the different stages of his manager’s vision, but has played an active part in elevating and fine-tuning the team’s performances on the pitch, and in fostering togetherness off it.

And the thing is, he’s just getting started.

Early on in the current season, Ødegaard signed a new five-year contract and pledged his long-term future to the club that “felt like home from the first day”.

After the announcement went live, Arteta said, “there are many ways […] and many pathways to arrive where you want.”

This is also true for styles of leadership. Martin might not be an overtly vocal presence (though he’s animated enough when it’s needed), but only a fool would miss the steely passion that lives close to that calm surface, the competitive hunger to win and to keep improving and challenging himself and those around him, or even the sense of lurking mischief and humour that’s been popping up more and more.

Martin Odegaard
Artwork by Shivani Khot

Ødegaard, who was appointed captain for the Norwegian national team two months after he came to Arsenal on loan, is no stranger to leadership. And given his vast experience of over a decade in competitive football at the highest level, the now 25-year-old has been through more than his peers and even more than some veterans, which certainly gives him an advantageous poise. But the rest is all him. His thoughtful maturity, the way he has embraced the captain’s role at Arsenal on and off the pitch, his relationship with the supporters, how he demands from and encourages both himself and his teammates, his manner of carrying himself in the media. There seems to be an immediate and instinctive understanding of what it means to represent The Arsenal that has further endeared him to the fans. And, in a team full of leaders, it is visibly evident how beloved he is by the players.

When Cesc Fabregas was made captain in November 2008, the then Arsenal team already shared similarities with the current—exciting young talent, a world-class pure playmaker as leader, and a manager’s next great project after achieving the impossible. We all know what happened. Since then, the Emirates Stadium has been witness to some scintillating, creative wizardry from the likes of Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla (and yes, even Robin van Persie), but in the modern game, with its increased focus on the team as a unit and the leaps it has taken when it comes to fitness and speed, lone genius can’t save you if the rest aren’t performing at the same standards. Though I’d argue that nothing should be stopping us from throwing ourselves into enjoyment in witnessing said genius regardless—in fact, it is imperative that we do because nothing else is guaranteed.

This season was never going to be easy, off the back of the previous one, and questions were rightly raised during the blip in form at the end of last year, but a quick glance at Arsenal’s 2024 so far will show you just how far this group has come, where they’re capable of going together, and how our captain has been at the beating heart of it all.

There is always the lurking, gutting chance that trophies may elude even this bunch. In football, modern football especially, it takes timing, luck, having all the right ingredients in place just so, and sometimes not even then. Everything spins and turns and wobbles on margins as wide as a sixpence.

But none of this should take away from the fact that what Arteta and his men are building is special in its own right; I never want to lose sight of the fact that these fizzy, warm, unabashedly sappy feelings they’re making us feel over the past two seasons are a privilege after the long wait we’ve endured—who am I to dismiss and push away joy in a world so in need of it. And we couldn’t have found a better playmaker-captain candidate to represent this than Martin Ødegaard, who, in many ways, may be a classic Wenger player, but is also both the perfect talisman and product of Arteta-vision, and the dreams and hopes cherished within the ambition.

As a kid, Ødegaard always chose Arsenal in FIFA Career Mode, playing as Arsene Wenger and buying himself—the club with “my kind of players, smart, technical playmakers.” As a fifteen-year-old, during the peak of the signing frenzy surrounding him, he visited the club and even had dinner with Wenger who was interested in bringing him to North London.

A decade later, Arsenal is the club he has played the most number of games for; we are already the club he’s been at the longest, so maybe it’s no surprise that he’s flourishing in a delightfully exponential manner, notwithstanding his slightly shaky start to the season (which I suspect is a lot to do with Arsenal’s summer overhaul in midfield which took some adjusting to). This is where he’s meant to be, where his rather circuitous, though I’d argue essential, journey was carrying him. Home.

“That’s my captain!” yelled Saliba in the background of a video this summer. Same, Wilo, same.

Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.