After a hugely underwhelming 2020/21 season, the upcoming campaign is make or break for Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal project.
Although the jury is still out on the Spaniard, the club are set to back him heavily in the transfer window. Confirmation of Ben White’s arrival is imminent and the Gunners have already secured young pair Albert Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares for modest fees.
Next on Arteta’s shopping list is an attacking midfielder. James Maddison is their principal target, although the club have not given up on the idea of signing Martin Odegaard permanently following his loan spell last season.
Arsenal are keen to give Emile Smith Rowe significant playing time this season. The youth academy graduate’s emergence was one of the only highlights of their 2020/21 campaign and he was recently awarded the number 10 jersey and a new long-term contract.
However, as exciting a talent as Smith Rowe is, Arsenal still need additional reinforcements in midfield. Mesut Ozil, Dani Ceballos and Odegaard have all departed in recent times, creating a creative dearth in north London.
Therefore, what Arsenal are looking for is someone to play just behind the striker in their favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. All of the classic attacking midfielder attributes on the ball would be desirable, such as penetrative passing, vision and dribbling ability.
Off the ball, the demands would not be as rigorous as for some Premier League teams with Arteta’s Arsenal not pressing that intensely so far.
Both Maddison and Odegaard are accomplished passers who excel at both recycling possession and carving open defences with probing through balls.
Over the past few seasons there has been plenty of evidence to support this. During this period Maddison has averaged around five progressive passes per 90 minutes. Odegaard has done even better, peaking at over seven progressive passes during his impressive 2019/20 season at La Liga surprise package Real Sociedad.
He also holds an advantage over Maddison in terms of pass completion. Saying that over the past two seasons he has benefited from playing for teams that are happy to knock it around in the final third – perhaps too much in some instances.
The assist stakes are pretty close as well. In fact, it’s completely even with both players registering eight in the league over the past two terms. Each player is also an accomplished set piece taker.
Verdict: Odegaard (just)
Both players are attractive and effective in equal measure with the ball at their feet.
When we examined the two players’ heat maps for last season Maddison popped up everywhere, testament to his tendency to pick the ball and drive into wherever there is space. Odegaard was also fluid with his dribbling but tended to spend more of his time probing the right half-space.
In terms of sheer numbers he has tended to be more prolific than Maddison as well, besting him for progressive distance per 90 minutes in each of the past two seasons. Saying that, the Leicester man did manage more successful dribbles last term.
Another advantage Maddison has is his ability to win fouls. He loves taking the ball on the half-turn and waiting for contact, much like Jack Grealish who he has been compared to in the past. Not that extra free kicks would help Arsenal all that much, unless they seriously improved their set piece record.
During his club career Maddison has been far more prolific than Odegaard, averaging 0.11 more goals per 90 minutes than the Norwegian.
Although he has spent more of his career at the lower levels – taking in spells at Coventry and Aberdeen before signing for Leicester – Maddison does seem to be developing into a deadly finisher.
Last term he managed eight Premier League goals and some of them were absolute stunners. He specialises in drives from outside the box and is also a real threat from free kicks.
Odegaard has been equally impressive in front of goal in the past, though. He scored eight Eredvisie goals for Vitesse in 2018/19, only one of which was a penalty. This also included two free kicks.
Again, the two players seem eerily similar in this regard. However, Maddison just about has the upper hand for now.
Maddison has sometimes been characterised as a languid playmaker with little time for the defensive side of things.
This is mightily unfair with the midfielder playing an important role off the ball from Brendan Rodgers’ charges over the past few seasons. He presses from the front with genuine enthusiasm and often forces turnovers, though he is also intelligent enough to know when to keep his shape.
Thanks to this he has bettered Odegaard in almost every defensive metric over the past two seasons. This includes successful pressures, tackles, and blocks.
Odegaard is not a slouch without the ball but he has some way to go until he is as accomplished as Maddison defensively.
The sticking point in signing Maddison is how much he would cost Arsenal. The figure that is being reported is £60m, although Leicester could easily insist on more.
They are under no pressure to sell, given he has three-years left on his contract, is a key player and Arsenal are not even competing in Europe this season. The only way they might buckle if is Maddison starts agitating for a move. This seems unlikely as Rodgers’ Leicester project still has plenty of legs.
A deal for Odegaard would be easier. Although he is keen to stay and fight for his place at Real Madrid, the club would listen to offers. Even though they are set for a quiet transfer window in preparation for their attempts to sign Kylian Mbappe next summer, he remains some way down the pecking order.
Los Blancos are not in great shape financially meaning a bid of between £30m and £50m would be tempting
Both players would make smart additions to Arteta’s squad, but Arsenal’s priority should be getting hold of Maddison.
On the past few seasons’ evidence he just shades Odegaard in several key areas. What’s more, he fits the club’s recruitment brief – young, English players – and would have no adjustment period to life in the Premier League.
If the Maddison deal is not possible, Arsenal should have no hesitation in going after Odegaard. He has far more to give than his initial loan spell suggests.