There was a moment early in the La Liga game between Real Sociedad and Alaves last month that stopped football fans in their tracks. The game at the refurbished Anoeta Stadium was less than 20 minutes old when Martin Odegaard picked up the ball inside the Alaves half.
First, Odegaard skipped free of a challenge with a deft nutmeg. Then he bypassed two banks of eight defending Alaves players with a slide-rule pass into the path of his team-mate Mikel Oyarzabal, who dummied the goalkeeper with a feint before scoring the game's opening goal.
Odegaard's vision in picking out Oyarzabal wasn't an isolated moment. He has been phenomenal at Real Sociedad since linking up with the Basque team during the summer. He's arguably been the league's most exciting talent, having scooped the best player award for September.
It seems that Odegaard, 20, is finally coming into his kingdom after years in the wilderness. He was signed by Real Madrid in January 2015 to much fanfare. Capped internationally by Norway at 15 years old, he got his first start with Real Madrid in a league game against Getafe in May 2015, coming on as a substitute for Cristiano Ronaldo at the Santiago Bernabeu.
But then his career stalled. He spent time in Real Madrid's Castilla—under the eye of reserve team coach at the time Zinedine Zidane—before being loaned out to a succession of clubs in the Dutch Eredivisie.
It's only now—after his sparkling displays have helped Real Sociedad to climb within a point of the UEFA Champions League places in the league table—that many Madridistas are taking notice of one of several promising players the club have out on loan.
"This year it appears that Odegaard is ready for Real Madrid," says Alfredo Relano, honorary president of Diario AS. "He's a player who has had very confusing treatment by the club. He was signed for ridiculous money. He was obliged to train with the first team. He played with Castilla where he was a reject. The coaching staff were expecting too much from him. Then he left, going abroad on loan periods.
"Now he's at Real Sociedad, I like a lot what I see. He's playing very well. He has tremendous vision. He looks like a guy who's very happy in the group, with his team-mates. He's in the middle of the hugs. It seems like he could have the personality to be a leader."
The question is where would Odegaard fit if he returns to Real Madrid's squad. The club is overstocked with No. 10s—Isco, James Rodriguez, Eden Hazard, the injured Marco Asensio, Rodrygo, Brahim Diaz, to name a few. Even Karim Benzema, head coach Zidane's favourite striker, has the soul of a No 10. The fault lies with the club's president Florentino Perez, who has a weakness for players in this position.
"It's true Real Madrid has a lot of No. 10s," says Relano. "Big clubs are always on the lookout for No. 10s when the order comes from the president to find a player. I remember what Arrigo Sacchi said to Milan's owner Silvio Berlusconi: 'You always want to sign No. 10s.' It's because they're the kinds of players who catch the eye."
Phil Kitromilides, who works as a presenter for Real Madrid TV, makes the point that No. 10 is not a position the club has traditionally lined up with in recent times, with the exception of a long spell Isco had in the team in 2017. Invariably, Real Madrid goes with a 4-3-3 lineup, with the most notable including the fabled "BBC" trident of Gareth Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.
"Isco, James, even Bale would quite like to play there sometimes, but it's not a position that has necessarily existed at Real Madrid for a number of years, going back to even Mesut Ozil, who had to play out wide rather than in a more central, No 10 role," says Kitromilides. "Odegaard would have to adapt, but when players are good enough, they can adapt."
There are also question marks about Dani Ceballos, 23, another highly valued Real Madrid player out on loan. He's featured in all eight of Arsenal's English Premier League games since moving to London during the summer as well as starting both of Spain's UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers during the international break, but Zidane doesn't rate him.
During the summer, Zidane was keen to sell Ceballos to help fund the purchase of Paul Pogba, according to Relano, but the club insisted on holding on to him, so they farmed him out on loan—even though his departure has left Zidane with only four pure midfielders in his squad.
"Zidane has no faith in Ceballos," says Oscar Sanz, a journalist with El Pais. "It's very simple—Ceballos is a very similar player to Isco, but Zidane prefers Isco. Ceballos has more capacity to defend than Isco. It would be useful for Real Madrid to have him in the squad now, but if the club were to buy Christian Eriksen in the winter or, say, Donny van de Beek in the summer, it'll be very difficult for Ceballos to return to Real Madrid, especially if Zidane continues."
Real Madrid's discarding for the season of Sergio Reguilon—who has been called up to the Spain national team squad because of his excellent form on loan at Sevilla—appears short-sighted. Instead, the club's decision to spend the guts of €50 million on Ferland Mendy as a back-up full-back to Marcelo—in what Relano describes as Zidane's "whim"—looks like a needless extravagance.
Sanz reckons that Reguilon—who displaced Marcelo successfully for a couple of months last season in Real Madrid's starting XI—falls between two stools in Zidane's eyes: he is neither as good an attacker as Marcelo, nor as good a defender as Mendy.
One young player that Zidane does have faith in is Achraf Hakimi, or Achraf as he's known in Spain. Zidane gave Achraf his UEFA Champions League debut against Tottenham Hotspur in October 2017 as an 18-year-old. Their connection goes back a long way—Achraf joined Real Madrid's youth academy in 2006, the same year as Zidane's son, Luka, who became a friend.
Achraf has been tearing it up on loan at Borussia Dortmund for the last couple of seasons. Already this campaign, he has racked up four goals in nine Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League games for the club.
Sanz believes Achraf has the most promising future of all of Real Madrid's players out on loan. He draws a comparison with the young Moroccan international player's journey and that of Dani Carvajal, who he might well replace in the medium term on the right-hand side of Real Madrid's defence.
"The most important example of a loaned Real Madrid player in recent times is Carvajal," says Sanz. "When Jose Mourinho was manager, he didn't like the cut of him, so Carvajal went to Germany, and he was the best full-back in the Bundesliga.
"Carvajal returned to Real Madrid having developed into an extraordinary footballer. Achraf, too, has developed into one of the best full-backs in European football. Real Madrid trusts in the development of these kinds of players."
Sure, the system is not always successful. Relano cites the case of Andriy Lunin, who helped Ukraine to win the FIFA U-20 World Cup in the summer. His career is in drift mode—he only made a handful of appearances last season on loan at Leganes; this season, he has yet to feature for Real Valladolid. But Real Madrid is better at the practice of loaning out players than rivals Barcelona.
"Barca is a rigid school," says Relano. "They have been playing in their very particular way, so in the same way it has been very hard, for example, to fit a player like Zlatan Ibrahimovic into its team at Barcelona. It also discovers that it is difficult to fit its academy players into other clubs when they are loaned."
The quality of players Real Madrid has on loan—which also includes the exciting 18-year-old Takefusa Kubo, on loan at Real Mallorca; Jesus Vallejo at Wolves; and Oscar at Leganes—will provide the club with healthy in-house, production-line options for the next couple of seasons. The combined estimated market value of Ceballos, Odegaard, Reguilon and Achraf alone, according to the German portal Transfermarkt, is more than the salary budgets for this season of 15 La Liga clubs.
"Real Madrid can only select 25 in its first-team squad," says Kitromilides. "If it wants to have lots of good players, not all of them can be in its first-team squad at any one time. Real Madrid will always have young players coming up through its academy, so it sends them off on a one- or two-year loan, a sort of finishing school, to see whether or not they're good enough to break into the first team. We've seen this successfully done with Lucas Vazquez, Asensio, Carvajal. It's the logical conclusion—if you want to have all the best players."
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