Liverpool is scheduled to face Arsenal this weekend. Martin Ødegaard could be key, but Jürgen Klopp already found his own version after two transfer misses.
Martin Ødegaard will travel to Anfield this weekend, as he’s scheduled to captain his top-of-the-table Arsenal side in a high-profile bout with Liverpool on Sunday afternoon. The Norwegian star visited the famous Reds stadium around eight years ago as a 15-year-old prodigy, and now he will return.
The wonderkid spent three days at Melwood, the club’s former training ground, and even trained with the first-team squad — with Brendan Rodgers in charge at the time — but he later signed for Real Madrid before joining the Gunners further down the line. Now, he appears to have fulfilled much of his potential, evolving to become a cultured talisman for Mikel Arteta.
It remains to be seen whether Arsenal will win the Premier League this term, but it has an eight-point lead over Manchester City as it stands, albeit having played one game more. Ødegaard has been central to this rapid rise, having started all but one of the 29 matches, and that looks set to continue this weekend. It’s safe to say he won’t regret the near transfer miss that saw him go to Real Madrid instead of Liverpool all those years ago, with everything having worked out for him in the end.
Likewise, he probably won’t rue a second missed transfer chance from around the same period, when Jürgen Klopp also showed an interest in bringing him to Borussia Dortmund. While the move to the Spanish capital did not work out directly, it’s impossible to know what would have happened if he had taken a different path as a diminutive teenager.
To this day, the Scandinavian midfielder looks technical, slight and lightweight upon first glance. In fact, based on the physical nature of England’s top-flight, it is reasonable to suggest the large majority of traditional coaches would deploy him further forward, rather than expecting him to compete in the middle of the park.
Nevertheless, Arteta has trusted him to deliver and his faith has been justified over the past 18 months. Despite his relatively small frame, Ødegaard has painted himself as a very intelligent creator, and one who has a sublime touch with expert awareness of what is going on around him. He consistently makes optimal decisions in possession, almost becoming Arsenal’s conductor.
This weekend, he will come up against a player who could follow in his footsteps in Harvey Elliott. He turned 20 years old earlier this week and due to his youthful age, he doesn’t yet have a designated spot on the field, having dovetailed between roles as a forward and as a midfielder this season.
Elliott still has time to become whatever he wants on the pitch, with Klopp appearing eager to field him in his engine room, having previously labelled him as a ‘player for the middle’ when talking up his game. Indeed, the German coach has done exactly that on a number of occasions.
In October, the Reds boss described him as one of Liverpool’s ‘standout’ talents, stating: “Since Harvey is playing for the first team, he’s incredibly consistent. “He started last season incredibly consistent, he was in the team and was probably the standout player early in the season.”
In total, 35 players have attempted to dribble past Elliott this season, and 29 have succeeded, leaving him with one of the worst dribblers tackled rates in England’s top-flight. Moreover, he’s made just 36 tackles and interceptions so far; for context, Thiago Alcântara has 59 to his name, despite playing around 300 fewer minutes.
For a player who has been deployed in midfield, Elliott almost looks like a defensive passenger in the numbers, despite his undeniable willingness to press. However, the same curiously applies to Ødegaard. The Gunners skipper has tackled just 10 of the 44 players who have attempted to dribble past him, and he’s made even fewer tackles and interceptions than Elliott despite spending far more time on the pitch.
The two players are left-footed, technically clean, adept in tight spaces, creative and offensive-minded, and they both average a similar number of passes into the penalty box on a per-90 basis. They are clones of each other in many ways, yet one has been scapegoated at times for his team’s defensive woes, whereas the other has received praise as his team have topped the table.
Elliott has all of the tools to become Liverpool’s very own Ødegaard, and this weekend, the apprentice will host the master at Anfield. Maybe Klopp has got what he wanted all along.