Football

Can Odegaard banish memories of Oezil at Arsenal?

Martin Odegaard arrives at Arsenal on loan from Real Madrid for the rest of the season to far less fanfare than the excitement which welcomed Mesut Oezil from the Spanish capital 7½ years ago.

Unlike Odegaard, Oezil had proved himself as one of the world’s best playmakers during his time at the Santiago Bernabeu before being squeezed out amid a glut of Galactico signings and a need to recoup a £42.5 million (S$77.2m) transfer fee.

Yet, after the German’s stay at the Emirates finally ended on Sunday (Jan 24) with a long-awaited move to Fenerbahce, the Gunners have turned to Odegaard as the short-term solution to a dearth of creativity in midfield.

Oezil had long since been cast aside by manager Mikel Arteta. The 32-year-old had not played since March despite being one of the highest earners at the club on a reported £350,000 a week. But Arteta’s definitive decision has not been backed up by results in his first full season in charge.

Despite an upturn in form of late inspired by the emergence of youngsters Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka, Arsenal sit eighth in the English Premier League and out of both domestic cup competitions.

Even as his appearances on the field diminished under Arteta and his predecessor Unai Emery, the shadow of Oezil has continued to hang over the club.

Both Spanish coaches grew tired of the constant questions over his chances of returning to the first-team in press conferences, while Oezil’s active social media presence kept him in the spotlight.

His departure offers the opportunity for Arteta and Arsenal to move on, but to do so they need results.

The economic battering from a closed stadium due to Covid-19 restrictions has only deepened the Londoners’ financial woes after four seasons without Champions League income. Arsenal have even taken out a short-term £120m loan from the British government to tide them over to the end of the season.

In that context, the Gunners were never going to spend big in the transfer window despite clearing out some deadwood and big wages as was in the case with Oezil and Sokratis Papastathopoulos.

But, in Odegaard, Arsenal have managed to add one of the most sought-after young talents in European football to aid their chances of a top-four finish or winning the Europa League to get back into the Champions League.

At just 22, the Norwegian has already had a nomadic career since signing for Real as a 16-year-old.

After loan spells at Vitesse and Heerenveen in Holland, it was on another loan spell at Real Sociedad last season that Odegaard began to show the talent that made Europe’s top clubs scramble for him as a teenager. He brought guile and goals from midfield as the Basque side reached the Copa del Rey final for the first time in 32 years and finished sixth in La Liga.

Odegaard was keen to continue his development in San Sebastian, but such was the impact he made that Madrid cut his two-season loan deal in half to bring him back to the Bernabeu. Yet, like many other creative talents, Odegaard has not found favour with Los Blancos boss Zinedine Zidane.

Isco, James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale and Odegaard’s new teammate Dani Ceballos have also struggled for minutes under the Frenchman.

The fact no option to buy has been included in the deal shows the Spanish giants still rate Odegaard highly and know his future in Madrid could be much brighter when Zidane’s second spell in charge comes to an end.

But the Norwegian needs a stage to showcase his talent and Arsenal need another creator to complement Saka and Smith Rowe.

Oezil’s contract that became a burden is an example of how too often in recent years Arsenal have overstretched for players past their prime. The three-year deals handed to Willian and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang this summer already look misjudged.

Odegaard’s arrival is another gamble. With Benfica to come in the Europa League last 32 next month, Arsenal’s season could be over by the time he gets up to speed after months on the sidelines. However, should he be the catalyst to turn their season around, Oezil will finally be long forgotten. – AFP

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