Many Arsenal fans who made the short trip to Brentford last Friday night left well before the final whistle.
Their side’s 2-0 loss to the newly-promoted Bees represented a terrible start to the season. What was even more worrying than the defeat itself was the depressing predictability of the result.
Brentford’s routine win was a reminder – as if we needed another one – of how far Arsenal’s star has fallen in recent years. They missed out of European football for the first time in 25 years last season and it would take a minor miracle for them to trouble the top four this time around.
Even a top-seven finish is far from certain with Leicester and Tottenham looking in far better shape and a pack of chasing teams also aiming to sneak into the Europa Conference League.
There were few positives to take from the Brentford game for Arsenal. New signing Ben White was obliterated by Ivan Toney in the air, winning just three of his seven aerial duels. Calum Chambers was similarly ropey in the right-back position, while Folarin Balogun performed like a young kid dropped into an impossible situation. That is to be expected really, with the 20-year-old starting up front due to the absences of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Perhaps the only bright spark in the Gunners’ starting XI was Emile Smith Rowe, who performed bravely in an advanced midfield position. He completed three progressive carries, had four touches in the opposition area and misplaced just two of his passes all game. It was a continuation of last season where Smith Rowe continually showed flashes of his sky-high potential.
With this in mind, signing an additional attacking midfielder may not seem like a priority. However, the 21-year-old is far from the complete package, not yet possessing the decision making and end product required at the top level.
Furthermore, aside from the ‘Croydon De Bruyne’, Arsenal look light for creativity in central areas due to the recent departures of Mesut Ozil and Dani Ceballos.
These conditions have fuelled their pursuit of the likes of Emiliano Buendia, James Maddison and Philippe Coutinho this summer. In the end, though, the under-fire Mikel Arteta opted to make a move for Martin Odegaard this summer.
Despite being just 22, the Norwegian has had an intriguing career, making headlines around the world when Real Madrid spent big to sign him as a teenager. Since then he has impressed during a string on a loan spells, most notably with Real Sociedad during the 2019/20 season.
His displays for La Real hinted that he might be ready to make the step up to Los Blancos’ first team but despite his desire to stay and fight for his place, playing time was hard to come by. After a half-season loan spell last campaign, Odegaard has now all but officially signed for Arsenal on a permanent basis.
It is a dose of much-needed good news for the Gunners’ faithful.
Odegaard may not have been insanely productive last season but he showed plenty of promise and should help relieve some of Arsenal’s creativity problems right from the off. He is brave and always wants the ball. Often picking up dangerous positions between the lines, only six players received more passes per 90 minutes than him in the Premier League last season.
Once he gets the ball, he is positive. During his time at Arsenal he averaged over five progressive passes per match, more than James Maddison – another far more expensive transfer target – registered. He also ranked high for shot assists, with only seven Premier League players averaging more per 90 minutes last term.
This combination of desire and creativity could prove a lethal combination, particularly when Aubameyang, Lacazette and Bukayo Saka are back making runs in behind the opposition’s backline.
There is even scope for Odegaard to be deployed alongside the exciting Smith Rowe this season. The latter prefers to operate in deeper areas, touching the ball just 21 times in the opposition area during his loan spell. Meanwhile, Smith Rowe is liable to burst into the box and has experience as part of a frontline.
The pair also tend to operate in different areas laterally. Smith Rowe is most at home in the left half-space while Odegaard likes to roam around on the right-hand side. Should Arteta wish to, concocting a system in which both players can thrive without getting in each other’s way should not be an issue.
Although Odegaard’s arrival should not mark the end of Arsenal’s mini-rebuild – deals for Aaron Ramsdale and another forward if Aubameyang departs are likely – it is a much-needed boost for morale. He does not just represent sky-high potential either. Odegaard has the skills to help Arsenal significantly right away.