Full Match - Aston Villa 6-1 BrightonSep 30
Martin Ødegaard is a man in demand. It’s Monday afternoon in the plush surrounds of Sopers House in Cuffley and everyone wants a piece of the Arsenal captain.
In just over 48 hours’ time, he will lead out his brilliant young band of swashbucklers for their biggest Premier League game of the season. Perhaps even the club’s biggest for 19 years.
But for now, a throng of reporters, camera operators and PR staffers eagerly await his arrival in a tight, stuffy auditorium. As they take their seats, on the other side of the room, several large plasma screens are windowed with the faces of countless journalists patched in from across the world.
Amid the low-level chatter, the sense of anticipation for Manchester City v Arsenal – and specifically Ødegaard’s take on it – hangs unmistakeably in the heavy Hertfordshire air.
Wednesday’s huge showdown between the reigning champions and the current leaders, which will be shown exclusively live on BT Sport, may or may not prove the Premier League title decider it has long been billed as.
Yet no one here is in any doubt: as far as this week is concerned, it is the epicentre of the football world.
Ødegaard soon emerges from the corridor. Fortunately, there’s no need for me to brave the melee or jostle my way to the front of the queue for my pound of flesh. Instead, once the doors re-open a little while later, he is ushered towards me and mercifully, we retire to the much cooler, less frenzied environs of the top-floor restaurant.
Considering I’m his final engagement of what has already been a long day, as we sit down, I decide that he could probably do without yet another question on Erling Haaland or City – at least for now.
The relaxed setting lends itself more favourably to a broad reflection on his contribution to one of the most alluring stories of the season so far – Arsenal’s shock title charge.
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Tipped by many as top-six fodder at best, Mikel Arteta’s men have spent all but a few days since August sitting pretty at the Premier League summit. The swagger and style with which they have flattened most of their opponents has surprised even the most optimistic Gunners fans.
And there, at the heart of it all, has been Ødegaard. The relentless leader of a meticulously co-ordinated press. All those outrageous gossamer touches and beautiful eye-of-the-needle passes. The preternatural awareness of space. The effortlessly deft drops of the shoulder to evade pressure.
But what about Ødegaard the captain? It has, of course, been his first season as skipper, too, and I’m eager to start by finding out how he feels he has settled into the role.
“It was just after pre-season,” he recalls of the day last summer when Arteta offered him the armband.
“Mikel said he had been thinking about it for a while and he wanted me to be captain. I said ‘yes’ straight away and told him I would be very proud to do it. It was a pretty short conversation!
“He was obviously captain here too so he gave me a few words of advice. But I also knew that if I was going to do it, I had to do it my way. I think the fact that he wanted me to do the job shows I must have been doing something right before that.”
The same had already been true on the international stage, too, as Ødegaard was made Norway captain at the age of just 22 in March 2021. Has he had to adapt his leadership style to suit the more day-to-day demands of club football?
“Yeah of course,” he says. “I’m still learning. I’m still improving and I’m not perfect in any way. The main thing for me is to do what’s best for the team.
“On the pitch, it comes very naturally to me. I’m really into the game. Living the game, you know? I’m good at understanding what the game demands and what the team needs during it.
“Off the pitch, I’m maybe not as comfortable. But I’m learning. We have many leaders in this team, different types of character. They’ve helped me so much. So in that sense, it’s actually a pretty easy team to lead.”
Ødegaard speaks with such assurance and calmness that it’s easy to forget that he’s just 24. From breaking into the Norway team at 15, to making a high-profile move to Real Madrid at 16 before finally finding his ‘home’ at Arsenal two years ago, he has already been in the spotlight for the best part of a decade.
That wealth of experience makes him an ideal sounding board and example for the Gunners’ most exciting young talents such as Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli.
“I’m not one of the youngest in the team because we have a very young team but I’m still young,” he says.
“I’ve been through a lot and all the experiences I’ve had, especially in Madrid, going away on loans and coming back and struggling a bit there… yeah, I think that has helped me a lot to be where I am at the moment, to be captain of Norway and Arsenal.
“I try to use that in a good way and to help the other young guys.”
It’s a dream to play at this club, to play in the Premier League and to have the fans with us. It’s what I love the most – to go out there and hear the atmosphere and to play in our stadium. I couldn’t be more happy with how it’s going here.
- Martin Ødegaard
Earlier in the afternoon, I had spotted Ødegaard deep in conversation with Tony Adams. As a one-club man and the only player ever to have lifted the league title as captain in three different decades, Adams remains the gold standard for Arsenal skippers past and present.
A statue outside the Emirates Stadium depicting his famous celebration of an iconic goal against Everton in the 1997/98 title-winning season is a permanent reminder of his legacy.
“He's done some amazing things for the club,” says Ødegaard. “He really is a club legend. It was great to see him and meet him. It was brilliant to chat to him and just share some experiences.
“I actually asked him for a bit of advice at the end! He just said the main thing was how important it is for us to keep finding the right balance between attack and defence.”
While no-one expects the current Arsenal vintage to revive the famous offside trap of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Ødegaard has at least proved he’s not averse to dabbling in Adams’ tubthumping leadership style.
The energy and noise at the Emirates have improved dramatically in the past two years but regulars will tell you the sight of Ødegaard wildly gesticulating to whip them into a frenzy has become an increasingly frequent one this term.
“I think small things make the difference,” he says. “We’ve said the whole season how important the fans are to us and what they’ve done at the Emirates every game. Especially when we have conceded goals and when we’ve been struggling, they’ve really helped us get into the game again.
“That’s so important. So that’s why when we have a bad moment, when we need some energy, I try to get it from the fans and transmit it to the team. And they always respond so well. They make it easy for us players. When they’re supporting us like that, we get so much energy. It’s so crucial for us.”
Continuing the theme, I tell Ødegaard I read recently that when he leads the team out at the Emirates, he gets so swept up in the moment that he joins Arsenal fans in singing their new pre-match anthem, Louis Dunford’s ‘North London Forever’.
Is that actually true?
“Yeah it is! It’s amazing,” he laughs. “The song is so nice, so special. I remember the first time it was sung at the Emirates. It was unbelievable. Just… goosebumps, you know?
“It’s a dream to play at this club, to play in the Premier League, to be where we are and to have the fans with us. It’s what I love the most – to go out there and hear the atmosphere and to play in our stadium. I couldn’t be more happy with how it’s going here.”
So come on, then, I say. City. Arsenal head to the Etihad Stadium five points clear as they chase their first title since the Invincibles carried all before them in 2004.
However, Pep Guardiola’s men have two games in hand, are on an ominous 16-match unbeaten run and look to be in with a major chance of emulating rivals Manchester United’s 1999 treble success.
They have also ruthlessly cashed in on Arsenal’s recent run of three draws, in which the Gunners spurned two-goal leads against Liverpool and West Ham, before clawing back the same deficit twice to snatch a 3-3 tie against Southampton last Friday.
With tongue firmly in cheek, I suggest to Ødegaard that a good way to win the midfield battle might be to put in a strong early tackle on Rodri, thereby levelling their personal score.
Back in March, furious Arsenal fans accused the City star of attempting to “do” their man with a horror tackle in a Euro 2024 qualifier between Spain and Norway. Somewhat curiously, it went unpunished.
“Yeah… erm… no comment!” Ødegaard says with a knowing chuckle.
“It’s not just about the midfield battle, to be fair – it’s about the whole team. Obviously you have to change a few things tactically when you play them compared to other teams. But we have to be ourselves. We have to play the way we have done all season.
“I think we showed in the [1-0 defeat in the] FA Cup earlier this year in big periods of the game and also at home in the league that we can create a lot of problems for them. So that’s what we’re going to try to do.
“Then of course we have to defend well and take care of ‘my friend’ up front for them!”
I don’t think there were a lot of people who believed before the season we would be where we are at the moment. But we believed in ourselves. We knew the quality we had.
- Martin Ødegaard
I decide against referencing Arsenal’s Premier League record against City since Guardiola took charge in 2016, which makes for extremely grim reading: just one draw and 12 defeats from 13 games.
Or that you would have to go back to January 2015 to find their last league triumph at the Etihad, when a Santi Cazorla masterclass paved the way for a 2-0 triumph.
However, I put it to Ødegaard that Arsenal can take heart from their performances in away games against their biggest rivals so far this term.
The Gunners were unfortunate to lose at Manchester United, when Martinelli’s opener was wrongly ruled out. They won at Chelsea and Tottenham, and were scintillating in the first half of the eventual 2-2 draw at Liverpool.
“Yeah I think so,” he says. “What happened at Anfield was a good lesson for us. When you see the difference between the first half and the second half… how we controlled the game at the beginning when we played the way we’re supposed to play and we did all the things we should do. And then you see how the game changes when you’re a bit sloppy and when you’re not at 100%.
“And yeah, we also take some good experiences from the other games going into this. So we have to go there with confidence. Believe.
“All the games are big at this stage. We’ve said it all season – we take it game by game and that means each game is the biggest game. That’s the mindset you have to have.
“Of course, this is a special game and everyone from the outside is talking a lot about it. But in the end, it’s just three points.”
Just three points maybe, but three points that could provide a huge shot in the arm for Arsenal if they are to complete this unlikeliest of title triumphs.
Wednesday’s game will also be a landmark one for Ødegaard personally - his 100th for Arsenal. He’s already experienced plenty in north London: from the crushing low of last term’s denouement, when a top-four finish was agonisingly blown at the death, to the intoxicating high of this season’s thrilling rise.
But regardless of the result in Manchester, he stands by his recent assertion that when it comes to his next 100 games and beyond - including a long overdue return to the Champions League in September - anything is possible.
“Yeah I definitely believe that. I mean it when I say it: there’s no limits to what this team can achieve,” he says.
“Especially with such a young team. I’m sure we’ll get better and better with time. I don’t think there were a lot of people who believed before the season we would be where we are at the moment.
“But we believed in ourselves. We knew the quality we had. Even though we didn’t end last season the way we wanted, we were really hungry, really positive going into this season.
“That’s the key thing about this team. Everyone is so hungry to improve. Every day we come in and everyone wants to work hard. The whole club, the staff… everyone is pushing so much to improve and get better. That’s why I’m so confident.”
If his confidence translates to a statement victory for Arsenal on Wednesday night, those demands on Ødegaard - the man who seems to have spent his entire life in the public glare - will only rise.
But if that is the case, one thing is for sure: this coolest of customers will continue to take it in his stride just as effortlessly as he weaves his inimitable technical magic on the pitch.
Watch Manchester City v Arsenal exclusively live on BT Sport 1 HD, BT Sport Ultimate, the BT Sport app or btsport.com from 7pm on Wednesday.