Martin Odegaard boiled down his approach on the pitch to one simple, sweary line. “You have to not give a f**k.”
Arsenal’s skipper can rarely be accused of carelessness on the pitch but his form has noticeably dipped over recent weeks. It was always going to be tough to replicate last season’s 15-goal haul from midfield but Odegaard’s underlying numbers have taken a dive as well.
Ahead of winless Sheffield United’s trip to the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, Mikel Arteta felt compelled to defend Odegaard, lauding him as an “incredible player”. “We have developed him into that player and that person,” Arteta stressed, “and now it’s about maintaining and sustaining that level, and that’s the challenge.”
Here’s how Odegaard could retain to that lofty level against the worst team in the Premier League.
It may seem counterintuitive to take fewer shots in the search for more goals but quality is just as important as quantity. Like the entire Arsenal team, Odegaard’s expected goal (xG) output has dipped compared to last season.
The specific drop-off for the Norwegian can be partially explained by his insistence to pull the trigger from wild positions – Odegaard is yet to take a single Premier League shot from between the width of goalposts within 12 yards of the net, last term he scored six league goals from this high-quality area.
The goals that Odegaard did convert from range last term are naturally more prominent in the memory than a simple tap-in, giving the illusion of an inflated proficiency from distance. However, Odegaard only scored three goals from outside the box last term and may do well to get a clearer sight of Wes Foderingham’s net before letting rip on Saturday.
Odegaard, however, is not solely to blame for his dip in productivity.
Declan Rice’s adaptation to Arsenal has offered plenty of cause for optimism. The dynamic central midfielder remains a colossus out of possession, eating up oceans of green grass to make a raft of recovery tackles. However, the former West Ham United captain has struggled with the on-ball demands of a defensive midfielder in Arsenal’s system.
Thomas Partey, for all of his faults, excelled at receiving the ball on the half-turn inside the opposition’s defensive shape, breaking the first line of the press without even playing a pass. Rice rarely came across this dilemma in east London and has forced Arteta to tweak Arsenal’s buildup this term, dropping wide to take the ball off the centre-backs in front of 11 opponents huddled in an obdurate mid-block.
Odegaard, after hours practising scanning with his father on the local pitch as a child, is comfortable collecting the ball under pressure and has regularly been dragged deeper to help with Arsenal’s buildup this season.
With Partey expected to be out injured until Christmas, Arteta has turned to Jorginho as the holding midfielder, shifting Rice up the pitch. But even the composed Italian has struggled with his back to the press, most notably gifting Tottenham Hotspur a second equaliser in the north London derby.
After a full pre-season and three months of competitive action, Rice must have picked up some tips about the art of buildup. Sheffield United are not only the Premier League team with the fewest points but also the fewest high turnovers. They aren’t going to be snapping at Arsenal’s heels. If Arteta isn’t going to entrust Rice with lubricating Arsenal’s attacks at home to such accommodating opponents, when will he? It would certainly help unshackle Odegaard.
For large swathes of his Arsenal career, Granit Xhaka’s exit would have been greeted with relief rather than grief. Yet, the newly potent attacking weapon has been missed since joining Xabi Alonso’s Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen last summer.
Kai Havertz was originally shoehorned into that left-sided role but has endured a self-diagnosed “bumpy” start to life in north London. Fabio Vieira and Rice have been rotated in but no one has been able to recreate the thrust that earned Xhaka seven Premier League goals and as many assists last term.
Without any considerable threat to worry about from the left half-space, opposition defences have been able to double-up on Odegaard. The reduced room in which to work has seen Odegaard’s creative output plummet, with the captain’s expected assists (xA) taking a 65% hit.
Vieira has provided bursts of promise but Arteta could be tempted to give Emile Smith Rowe a rare opportunity from the outset. The mercurial midfielder has not started a Premier League game since May 2022 but produced a promising display against Brentford in the Carabao Cup last month and was given 20 minutes in Arsenal’s dramatic comeback against Chelsea last weekend.
Odegaard was pointedly removed while Arsenal were still chasing an equaliser at Stamford Bridge but could benefit from more than ten minutes alongside Smith Rowe.
With Arteta’s doodles on the whiteboard still fresh in their minds, Arsenal scored a league-high 13 goals in the opening 15 minutes of matches last season, giving the Gunners a rapid head start to build from. Odegaard contributed four of these strikes, including a brace against one of the promoted teams from last season, Bournemouth.
Arsenal are yet to find the net in the opening quarter-hour this term, taking away a clear avenue of success for the team as a whole and their skipper. Sheffield United have conceded the most goals of any Premier League team this season, including two in the opening 15 minutes of matches.
Whether Arteta needs to break out the extension lead and lightbulb again is up for debate, but he needs to find a way of rediscovering the electric starts for his team and captain.