gettyimages-1307049843.jpg
Getty Images

Mikel Arteta did not need to look far back in the annals of Arsenal history for a reminder that Martin Odegaard's loan move to the Emirates Stadium was not without its risks.

It is hard to imagine now that acquiring Odegaard for the cost of his salary and a minimal loan fee was anything other than a sure thing, but Arsenal have been here before when it comes to loaning a creative talent already had experience with loaning creative talent from a La Liga giant. Their decision to bring in Denis Suarez from Barcelona midway through the 2018-19 season loomed large in the minds of Edu and his recruitment team as they scoured Europe on the hunt for a playmaker to fill the gap that was apparent in Mikel Arteta's side.

Suarez's signing had been a disappointment on the pitch, where Unai Emery entrusted him for just 95 minutes of football, and off it. It proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back for soon-to-be ex-recruitment chief Sven Mislintat, who had advocated giving more minutes to youth academy prospects, while also serving as a block for Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe's development, though a groin injury to the latter would limit his opportunities on loan at RB Leipzig.

Such is the risk of signing players that other clubs are willing to let leave midseason. Barcelona may be some way ahead of Arsenal, but if they see no opportunities whatsoever for Suarez then there were no guarantees that he could prove himself to be a key cog in north London at a time when he would need to regain match fitness, familiarize himself with a new league and assimilate into a new country. It is a tough ask, and if progress is not swift then coaches will conclude there is little value giving minutes to a soon-to-be departed player.

That happened to Suarez, but there is little chance of a reprieve for Odegaard, even though Arteta acknowledged that he had doubts over whether the Norwegian would be able to adapt to his new environment quickly enough.

"That was our feeling [that he could settle] but you never know," Arteta told CBS Sports in his prematch press conference ahead of Arsenal's Europa League tie with Olympiacos on Paramount+. "You have to see him in action, you have to see his character a little bit closer, on a daily basis. 

"I think everybody has been really impressed with how quickly he has adapted. Professionally, how he is and how willing he has been since day one to try to engage with everybody at Colney and then also with the performances that he's putting in as well."

Those performances are already proving to be impactful for an Arsenal side who have built encouraging momentum in 2021. The past week in particular has been a breakout spell for Odegaard, where he has scored his first two goals for his new club, a thunderous long-range effort against Olympiacos followed by an altogether more scruffily taken but far more valuable equalizer in Sunday's 2-1 win over Tottenham in the North London Derby. Scarcely a month after his debut for his new team, he had as many open play goals for them as he scored in La Liga last season with Real Sociedad.

Though he may be scoring at a faster click, Odegaard has made a success of his time at Arsenal largely because he has been allowed to reprise the role he played with La Real in a season where they finished sixth in La Liga. Though nominally the No. 10 for both teams, he largely operates to the right where he looks to form an attacking triangle with Bukayo Saka and the right-back (most impressively Cedric Soares) while opening up space for the left winger to dart infield.

odegaardtouches.png
TruMedia

It helps perhaps that Saka offers a similar skillset at a higher level to that which Adnan Januzaj brought to Real Sociedad, a player who can attack off either foot and will look to drive into the space Odegaard has left behind. It is little wonder that Odegaard has made more passes to Bellerin and Saka in Premier League and Europa League games while receiving more from the latter than anyone else.

Building that swift understanding has helped Odegaard immediately excel among new teammates. After 10 games in the top flight and Europe, he leads his teammates in key passes per 90 and is second only to Willian in chances created. No-one in an Arsenal shirt completes a higher proportion of their passes in the final third while no player in his position averages as many ball recoveries; he is already a key component in Arteta's more aggressive press.

On a personal level, he has also improved: Creating more chances per 90 this season than he did last term with Real Sociedad, completing his take-ons more frequently even if he is attempting less and taking more touches in the box. The latter was something his manager was particularly keen to note.

"He is getting better and better," said Arteta. "I think his understanding of what we want is excellent. His work rate has been phenomenal and then he's doing something that, in my opinion, could improve a lot which is getting in the opponents' box and maybe being more decisive in the scoreline.

"He is doing that with the two goals and he's had some really important entries into the zones and he looks all the time really dangerous. If he adds that to his game, he becomes a real complete player."

Crucially none of this impressive form has come at the cost of Smith Rowe's development. It is almost counter to the Suarez loan, where Arsenal got a player they didn't really have any use for when minutes could have instead gone to youngsters.

There were certainly some at the Emirates who feared the same fate when Odegaard arrived. It had been a curious few weeks. Arsenal had begun talks with Real Madrid over a loan before Boxing Day and were publicly open about their need to add the No. 10 their side did not have with Mesut Ozil in exile. Yet the speed with which Smith Rowe adapted to a pivotal role at his boyhood team posed something of a quandary, albeit a far more favorable one than those Arteta had faced in the previous weeks. The youngster could not hold the keys to the offence every game but equally Smith Rowe had earned the right to feature on a consistent basis.

Happily for Arsenal, the two seem to have clicked, offering proof to the old cliche that good players find a way to play together. Odegaard's drifts to the right open up space that Smith Rowe could theoretically attack, though it was notable that in Sunday's win over Spurs those were filled by Granit Xhaka as the No. 32 stuck wide to double up on the struggling Matt Doherty.

Arteta might have seen that all along. "The plan was to have more options and to start to create relationships with players that, in our opinion, could play together," he said of signing Odegaard while Smith Rowe's star was on the rise. "We work together as a club to try to identify those talents, good players and intelligent players that can always play together. 

"We have to find the right structure for them to maximize their potential and this is what we are trying to do and we will try to do that even more with some of the players that we have with the same qualities."

Already the question is what comes next with Odegaard. In initial talks about the loan, Arsenal looked to include a purchase option but Real Madrid were emphatic in their refusal, sources have told CBS Sports. For all that the Norway captain's performances have proven, the Gunners were right to pick him out from the loan market in January as he has also shown his parent club made a shrewd move keeping flexibility over what his next move is.

Odegaard has his admirers at the Santiago Bernabeu, and at 22, he's a player Madrid ought to be building around in the long term. Still the same was true of Achraf Hakimi and Sergio Reguilon; what this club has increasingly discovered is that it is only their bright young things that can attract the sort of sizeable fees that would be needed to fund any additions in the summer.

If Madrid do opt to let him go this summer, permanently or temporarily once more, Arsenal plan to be at the front of the queue even if they should expect to find rivals in the market. The Gunners have at least one advantage.

Odegaard is publicly and privately delighted to have found himself in north London and feels at home at this club. That much is clear when he takes to the field in red. He and Arsenal already look to be an ideal match.