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Is Real Madrid’s youth policy crumbling? Where Los Blancos messed up with Martin Odegaard


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Somewhere in Real Madrid’s sporting vision, one that has recently been lauded as a flag-bearer of rebuilding the right way by signing the best young players in the world, lies a hidden message: It is incredibly hard to juggle youth development and success at the highest level, even when you have put so much emphasis in doing so. 

Martin Odegaard

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Martin Odegaard

Real Madrid have long been a buyer, not a seller. As the financial landscape dramatically shifts, and buying power veers towards privately-owned clubs, Florentino Perez has pivoted to scouting younger players and grooming them – with less reliance on luring the super-duper stars that have come to the Bernabeu over the past two decades.

In many ways, Martin Odegaard is the poster-child of Real Madrid’s new-found youth policy. He is the primal point. Odegaard was Juni Calafat’s first discovery back in 2015. Calaft, Real Madrid’s chief scout, then went on to find Fede Valverde, Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo Goes, Eder Militao, and others. All of those players had little-to-no experience at a professional level. 

One common misconception with these young signings is that Real Madrid are not spending money like they used to. It’s hard to fathom without many marquee signings over the past few years, but the club has still spent just north of €670m over the past five years. Militao was €50m, Rodrygo €45m, Vinicius €45m, Reinier Jesus €30m, Alvaro Odriozola €30m, Theo Hernandez €24m. Luka Jovic was more expensive than all of them. 

There are others. Real Madrid’s young signings have not been cheap, but the idea was always deeper than that: You pay tens of millions now in order to avoid paying hundreds of millions later. If Vinicius had turned into Kylian Mbappe (and yet he still might, though signs point to him not reaching that level), Real avoid an even larger investment. If one of these players hits home, you win. Those that don’t could develop into good players still, and the club can recoup the transfer price – possibly even make a profit – by selling them. Not all these kids were meant to become future Real Madrid players. This is a business, after all.

That’s the ideal path, anyway. In reality, it’s a bumpy road, and it’s possible none of these players pan out, or even worse: They pan out and lift trophies at other clubs. Alumni are already succeeding elsewhere: Sergio Reguilon, Mateo Kovacic, Marcos Llorente, Luka Jovic, Achraf Hakimi. 

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The problem is not that Real miss those players now, given they have Ferland Mendy, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Karim Benzema and Dani Carvajal in those positions — but they may miss them later as their current core ages. In fact, you could argue almost all of those players currently out on loan or sold would be extremely valuable to the side now, but Zinedine Zidane has had challenges integrating players beyond the veterans he’s loyal to.

Odegaard found himself in limbo, the way his predecessors, Kovacic, Lorente, Reguilon and co, did. He is a victim of Luka Modric, 35, playing like he’s in his late 20s. He is a victim of Toni Kroos, one of the greatest passers in football history, still in his peak. In other positions, like the right-wing, where Odegaard spent so much time playing both with Real Sociedad and in the Eredivisie, he is a victim of Zidane’s thirst for Lucas Vazquez’s two-way contribution and defensive coverage. 

That’s the simple version. The story expands into more details: Zidane has been tight with his rotations and has allowed players like Isco and Asensio to leapfrog him in the depth chart. Zidane has also pleaded the press to be patient with Eden Hazard as the Belgian finds his form on the pitch, but has not held that same leash with Odegaard. Maybe the answer to that one is easy: Hazard deserves patience because he’s expensive and a proven superstar – Odegaard’s situation is different. Zidane doesn’t see Odegaard’s value the same way.

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The question that has been difficult to answer, is simply, why? Odegaard’s season with Real Sociedad before his injury was that of an offensive supernova. By the time the league campaign ended, Odegaard ranked in the top-10 in goal-creating actions, shot-creating actions, key passes, passes into the penalty area, progressive passes, carries into the final-third, successful dribbles, and through-balls.

Odegaard started early on this season, lost his place, missed 10 games due to injury, and never made his way back into the team despite returning to full health and looking fine on the field. Where did Zidane lose his appeal? Was it on the defensive end, where he saw more security in other proven players? Perhaps. The defence had to improve (and it did) if Real were to win titles without scoring goals. But it’s hard to sustain 1 – 0 wins at a club like Real Madrid.

There was always pressure on Zidane this season to improve offensively. Odegaard fits the profile to help. Real Madrid’s offence has declined dramatically since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure. With Hazard in (and mostly out) of the lineup, that offence gets de-fanged even further.

And maybe that’s the most confusing part: Real Madrid are not flying with the current core. They are not playing well enough to dismiss the idea of changing things, whether it be tactics or players. We have seen Luka Modric and Toni Kroos burn out before. How much will they have left in the tank during the spring, with the season on the line – if Real Madrid are even competing in both major competitions by then? 

And what will actually change next summer for Odegaard and Jovic? Not much. Benzema will still be around, as will Modric and Kroos. Achraf Hakimi’s loan could’ve extended for another four years, and Dani Carvajal would still be Real Madrid’s right-back. Sergio Reguilon has a buy-back option that can be triggered in 2020 – but Real Madrid already have Ferland Mendy and possibly David Alaba by then.

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In this case, it’s Arsenal’s gain. Odegaard can slot ahead of Mikel Arteta’s double-pivot – one recently strengthened by Thomas Partey’s arrival – and provide a pulse to Arsenal’s attack. He can play centrally and provide an outlet in transition while making the right plays in the final third. Aubamayeng and Saka will love making runs in behind wing-backs with Odegaard supplying the killer ball to them.

“I followed him very closely because he played for Real Sociedad which is my hometown and I know him really well,” Arteta said of Odegaard in a press conference on Thursday. “He is such a talent. He just needs the right environment, and a little bit of time, but he’s got the qualities to be a success for us.”

Arteta, who said he pitched an exciting picture for Odegaard to help close the loan deal, also gave some insight on how the Norwegian will be used in his scheme.

“He’s a specialist to playing in the pockets, to be in the number eight or number ten positions,” Arteta continued. “He can play on the wings as well – he’s a really creative player, really comfortable on the ball in tight spaces. He has the capacity to create chances, to score goals.”

With Odegaard, Real Madrid breached the unwritten rule: Don’t fix something that’s not broken. Real Sociedad and Odegaard were a perfect marriage, yet Real Madrid decided to recall him from loan early, only to see him leave this winter. This is where Real Madrid’s youth policy has crumbled. 

They are signing these talented young players at a time where so many of their core players are at their peak, and with limited desire to integrate the kids, they’re losing them.

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