Why Martin Ødegaard is the PERFECT choice for Arsenal Captain

Why Martin Odegaard is the PERFECT choice for the next Arsenal Captain

“Yeah it will be announced pretty shortly, I think when we get back. After I’ve seen the team, how the new players have adapted, the roles, the interactions that they are having… I will make it clear.” – Mikel Arteta, Friday 22nd June

Last Friday, Mikel Arteta confirmed to Sky Sports that Arsenal are soon set to name their new club captain, most likely after they return from their tour of the US. By the time you’re reading this, it may even have already been confirmed. 

Martin Ødegaard is seen by most as the front runner for the captaincy. Here’s why I think that is, or would be, the right choice.

Say “Premier League captain” to a football fan, and it’s likely to stir up particular images from a particular era. I suspect the late 90s and early 2000s. Vieira, Keane, Adams or Gerrard — ‘alpha male’ types. Many have fond memories of those players, and there’s something undeniably attractive about uniting behind a sort of battling warrior type. A vocal, strong leader, wanting your team to win as obviously as you do. 

But there were some negatives to that type of leadership — conflict, as obvious as it sounds, doesn’t always unite people. And that aggressive, macho style is not as natural as many tend to think it is. There’s a brilliant episode of Adam Ruins Everything which debunks the idea of ‘alpha males’. They don’t really exist — it’s based on a botched study of wolves. As in the animal, not the club.

As society changes, leadership must change with it. In my view it’s not about removing strong leadership, it’s about adapting it. Moving it towards something more bespoke to the individuals within the group. Something more positive and developmentally focused, to get the best out of the widest group of people you can.

I also think leadership conversations get clouded by a warped perception of the league — pundits often comment on how incoming players might struggle to adapt to the “toughness” or “physicality” of the Premier League.

But the tone setters, currently Manchester City and Liverpool, are not led by a load of 6’5” lump-it clodhoppers. To me, their physical side is primarily about running, counter-pressing and explosiveness across the ground; smart, intelligent movement. For individual players now, though muscle and size absolutely has its importance, it’s just no longer as relevant as technical quality and athletic ability to repeat actions in a smart way. I think the concern about incoming players is slightly skewed by a bygone era, and by extension it then slightly skews or colours our view of what kind of profile is suitable to lead a team. They don’t need to look a specific way.

According to FIFA’s Laws of the Game, the only mandated responsibility of the captain is to do the coin toss to decide who’s in what end first… so do we just pick the guy who’s best at heads or tails?

All jokes aside… how do we make a captain a competitive advantage? What do we need from a Premier League captain in 2022, what do they represent now, and how would Ødegaard be the most suitable from the current squad?

Right now Arsenal’s playing principles are embedding and developing as the squad goes through a significant period of change — so the priority right now is ensuring alignment of the vision and proper cultural tone-setting from the top down. Someone who you trust to organise the team on the pitch in terms of shape and structure, translating the manager’s message, but also a calming and hard-working influence to relate to and settle a young group, while setting an example. 

You also need someone who’s good at football. No one will get behind a captain who’s comfortably one of the worst players in the team.

“Ødegaard is Arteta’s eyes and ears. Whenever the ball goes out of the play, the player that Arteta always calls to speak to is Ødegaard. He is his guy out on the pitch.” — Charles Watts, Goal

Firstly, in-game, there’s no doubt that Ødegaard is the technical leader of the team.

Other than Gabriel and Benjamin White, as is to be expected, Martin Ødegaard completed the most passes and had the most touches out of anyone at Arsenal last season.

Other than Saka, the centre backs and the goalkeeper he also played the most minutes.

He is ever present, and central to Arsenal’s play. I’m about to give you a load of stats, but your eyes tell you it all — when Ødegaard is on song, he runs the game and dictates the tempo.

In terms of the “good at football” bit of the requirements, he was in the top 5 chance creators in the league last season, in excellent company. He’ll want to improve on a disappointing 4 assists last season, (a new number 9 will help) but when you dig a bit deeper into the numbers, you find someone who is integral to Arsenal’s play.

Ødegaard is by far and away Arsenal’s most dangerous passer in terms of adding goal probability from his passing, as seen here.

His contribution to xG Buildup, i.e. how likely it is if Ødegaard is involved that there is a high quality chance, is at the top of the charts…

…as are his deep completion numbers — a completed non-cross pass that is targeted to the zone within 20 metres of the opponent’s goal.

Ødegaard does his job on the ball: facilitating chance creation. But he is also crucial to Arsenal’s intelligent press, and defending from the front. Here he is, leading the team in terms of pressures per 90 in the Premier League last season.

He’s also in the 96th percentile when compared to other attacking midfielders in the top 5 leagues for tackles in the attacking third, and the 97th percentile when compared to midfielders for tackles and pressures in the attacking third. He’s getting better at it too. Successful tackles in the final third per 90 jumped from 0.21 last season to 0.61 this year, and his successful pressure metric per 90 went up too – all stats here. I suspect Arsenal will begin to press even more next season with the five subs rule change and based on what we’ve seen in pre-season — so Ødegaard may become even more important.

So what does he actually do? 

Occasionally he’s deployed in the front line when Arsenal use a 4-4-2 defensive block, and he’s always quick to recognise situations where Arsenal can gain ground. One simple example here of him in the first line, pressing Söyüncü against Leicester at home — but note the angle he does it from.

Söyüncü is right footed so he’s pressing his weaker foot so he would feel uncomfortable opening out and is forced backwards — Ødegaard’s also not too square so he could pop it round him. Everyone else can push up as Leicester retreat.

Simple, but smart. 

But the more subtle work he does, behind the first line, is where he shows his real worth. Take this situation here against Liverpool, which all happens within about 20 seconds. Ødegaard is crucial to stopping them build up. 

Here, he’s one of three players blocking the passing lanes into midfield for Fabinho, so the player turns back and Liverpool recycle possession to the right.

As they move it back round to the left, Ødegaard instructs Smith Rowe to block the lane to Fabinho, anticipating he may be receiving the next ball, while blocking a ball into midfield himself.

Next, Saka steps in on Robertson and Ødegaard sees Robertson coming in field, so moves to block the pass to Jones.

Ødegaard then moves in on Robertson having blocked Jones out of the game, and forces Robertson backwards.

The ball comes to Matip, and Ødegaard blocks Matip’s ball into the midfield, so Matip goes to pass as you can see by his body shape here, but decides against it owing to Martin’s position, playing the ball back to Van Dijk.

Van Dijk attempts a ball out to the right hand side, it’s not controlled, and Arsenal win the turnover.

Ødegaard’s all round contribution to this team is indispensable. At times, he runs this team. It’s not only his more obvious output, ridiculous deftness of touch and moments that make the crowd go “oooo”, it’s this kind of subtle off the ball work that Arteta will really love, his ability to defend from the front and organise those around him.

He also plays in the middle of the field and likes to drop deep to receive off defenders, meaning he can communicate more easily with all of the team’s lines. He is constantly speaking with those around him, has an incredible football IQ and has an evident interest in tactics and understanding more about the game, as attested to by those around him (which we’ll hear in a moment).

On the pitch, you could argue Ødegaard is already the captain. In fact, he literally is at the moment. Perhaps the bigger question marks are around his off-field impact — and the only way to assess that is to listen to those who know.

In order to be part of a winning culture and lead a team, you need to be an influential figure. That doesn’t mean you have to be loud — it just means you need the respect of your fellow pros, which he seems to have. Ex-Arsenal captain Granit Xhaka said that he was the “future of the club”, and that everyone in the dressing room listens to him. “He is only 23, but he behaves like he’s 30.”

Multiple sources, including Aaron Ramsdale, talk of Ødegaard as the “teacher’s pet”. Ramsdale told Peter Crouch’s podcast recently that Arteta and Ødegaard speak closely after every training session in Spanish, where Mikel normally speaks to everyone else in English — so most of the time, no one knows what they’re talking about. Ramsdale referred to him jokingly as ‘parched’ — a reference from the podcast to describe someone who aims to curry favour with the manager by standing by them and communicating with them a lot.

In an appearance on David Seaman’s podcast, Aaron Ramsdale was more serious about his respect for Martin’s qualities. He said:

“He’s a very calming individual. He might not be the most vocal, but you don’t always need your captain to be the most vocal because you could have three or four other players who are vocal. He’s a top class footballer and he has that respect [in the dressing room].”

The manager picks the captain, but it sounds like the qualities that Granit and Aaron outline are exactly what Arteta is looking for. He recently said:

“For me, the most important thing is that the other people – whether it’s coaches, staff members or players – when you talk, they listen to you. You don’t have to be talking all the time… the most important quality (is) you have to be able to transmit your thoughts and ideas in a powerful way. So you’re able to inspire people and get people behind you.”

As a tone setter, you need to set an example to your fellow professionals. Mikel also said:

“He had a period at the start where he wasn’t playing, he was the first in training, the last to leave, asking the right questions – why he wasn’t playing, what he had to do – he was always listening, he was always helping his teammates. His attitude was absolutely phenomenal.”

As quite a humble, quiet character on the face of it, what Ødegaard lacks in the kind of ‘old-school’ mould of leadership, he more than makes up for in his example, his actions, and indeed in footballing experience. 

Ødegaard has not had a conventional rise to where he is. He started training with the Strømgodset first team aged 13, and made his senior international debut for Norway at 15 years of age — an incredible amount of pressure on young shoulders. He’s played for 2 clubs in Norway, 2 in Spain, 2 in Holland and now us — and he’s only 23.

More than most, Ødegaard knows what it’s like to be under the spotlight. It’s probably fair to say he will never receive the kind of media attention he got in around 2014 and 2015 again — if you were around at the time, you’ll remember it well. I’m only slightly older than him, so to me it felt slightly surreal someone around my age could be training with Ronaldo and holding press conferences. In 2021, Ødegaard was appointed captain of the Norwegian national side, with manager Stale Solbakken choosing Martin over superstar striker Erling Haaland. Experience gets over-indexed, but Martin certainly hasn’t just stepped out of an U23s team. Training with Real Madrid in one of their most successful ever eras will have been eye opening to say the least.

He’s already been to the top and felt that pressure — so the composure we are beginning to see on and off the field is not an accident.

I’m not sure I’d go so far, but you could make an argument that Arsenal have not had a “good” overall captaincy since Per Mertesacker retired in 2018. Koscielny left in strange, acrimonious circumstances (though I feel like we might not know the full story publicly), Lacazette just wasn’t good enough, Aubameyang had disciplinary issues and Xhaka… well we all know what happened there. We need calm, we need hard work, and we need someone here for the long haul. We can’t just give out the captaincy as a way of stopping players leaving any more.

But with Ødegaard, it doesn’t feel like it’s something that would affect him in any negative sense, or place a pressure that isn’t there currently. Speaking to tv2sport, Ødegaard said receiving the captaincy at the end of last season was a “big compliment” as well as a “great recognition and declaration of trust”. He would clearly value the honour, but I wouldn’t expect a great deal to change, and in a way that’s kind of the most you can ask for. One regular captaincy at Arsenal, it’s all I ask for. Will never happen.

I suppose in a way, a captain is a conduit to the fans. Someone we see ourselves in on the pitch. Someone who cares about the club and has the skill to back up his elevated position, lead the team out and act as a symbolic figurehead. According to Red Action FC, Ødegaard was the number 1 most requested shirt when Arsenal released the new home kit this season. Something is connecting there. 

Some might argue you need an older, experienced head to lead a young group. I’d ask you to name who that is from this group, I don’t there is someone. And here’s the kicker. He is kind of the perfect symbol for this phase in Arsenal’s development. Someone looking to get back to former glory. Young enough to do it, with the potential and ambition to really pull it off. Young enough to relate, old enough to know. Good enough to lead, smart enough to understand. He ticks a lot of boxes.

Other candidates.

Benjamin White wouldn’t be a bad pick. However I’ve heard rumours about his off-pitch conduct not being the best at times, and I don’t want someone who doesn’t watch football to captain my club. Just my opinion — as long as he does the business on the pitch it doesn’t bother me, but to translate that hunger and the message from the manager, I’d like someone who seems more invested.

Ramsdale is a bit green, and Tierney… I won’t bash him again in my articles, but just not for me.

I do have my concerns. Ødegaard seems to be a bit of a fair weather player, and he can coast at times. I haven’t seen him grab a game by the scruff of a neck and pull Arsenal through a difficult patch yet.

But Ødegaard isn’t like that. He isn’t Keane, or Vieira. That’s not who he is — and we won’t find that any more. So for this team at this time, to have a calming, reliable, switched on brain at the heart of a bombastic, dynamic system? Someone who speaks Norwegian, Spanish and English fluently? It sounds like the perfect fit to me.

Whoever is the captain, ultimately, is a symbol. Players like Xhaka, Ramsdale, White and Tierney will all play their part in a leadership group. To me, his interview with Frimpon when he joined may point us to the key to all this, and it will always stick in my mind. He wants stability.

Having left home at such a young age then been shipped around all over the place, Ødegaard just needs a home. You can imagine the amount of pressure that’s been on him to succeed, the amount of sponsor demands, agent talk, expectations from his inner circle. He needs to feel comfortable and wanted, even when it’s not always working out perfectly. Then he can play his best football. Giving him this honour, to be the 64th captain of Arsenal Football Club, might push him to the next level — and what an extraordinary level that could be.

Alexander Moneypenny

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