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Martin Odegaard bringing the best out of Bukayo Saka and helping to lead Arsenal's top-four charge

Martin Odegaard's intelligence and creativity are proving invaluable in Arsenal's top-four push; Norwegian is helping Bukayo Saka shine on Gunners' right; watch Arsenal vs Leicester live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm

Martin Odegaard feature

The improvised backheel for Bukayo Saka in the build-up to his opening goal. The clipped pass into the feet of Alexandre Lacazette before the third. Martin Odegaard served up some moments to savour in Arsenal’s 3-2 win over Watford.

The 23-year-old was in sparkling form at Vicarage Road but in truth he has been producing performances of a similar level for much of the season. Signed for £34m from Real Madrid following his loan spell last season, he looks increasingly like a bargain.

Odegaard has been a central figure in Arsenal's rise up the Premier League table, and while his goal and assist totals are relatively modest at five and three respectively in 23 appearances, the Norwegian offers plenty more besides.

Odegaard's creative spark

When he is not providing the final flourishes himself, Odegaard can usually be found laying the groundwork for his team-mates.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights of Arsenal's 3-2 win against Watford

Consider his role in Gabriel Martinelli's goal against Watford, when he helped Cedric Soares's pass on to Alexandre Lacazette using the outside of his boot as Arsenal flew forward at speed.

It was a vital touch, a moment of inspiration which allowed Lacazette to lay the ball off for Martinelli to finish, and it was also just the latest example of Odegaard playing the pass before the pass.

He was similarly influential in both of Arsenal's goals against Wolves 10 days earlier, releasing Eddie Nketiah with a deft ball over the top in the build-up to the equaliser, then collecting Nicolas Pepe's pass and feeding Lacazette before their injury-time winner.

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None of those contributions went down as assists but they were invaluable in creating the openings in the first place and a closer look at the statistics underlines his importance to Arsenal's attack.

Martin Odegaard

Odegaard is creating more chances per 90 minutes than any of his team-mates and, just as significantly, he also ranks top for passes in the final third and passes into the opposition box.

There has been a conscious effort to get him closer to the opposition goal and Arsenal are reaping the rewards.

"I think he's more comfortable doing that now than he was when he joined," said Mikel Arteta in conversation with Sky Sports last week.

"He was all the time playing in deeper roles, getting the ball in deeper areas, and he was more comfortable facing the play in those positions than being in advanced positions.

"But that's something we've been working on with him because, in my opinion, that's where he can be the best for the team."

Odegaard feature

Arteta still wants to see Odegaard get into the box more often - and understandably so given he has scored four goals from just 12 shots from inside the box this season - but he is also a threat from distance, while set-pieces are another part of his armoury.

Odegaard's first goal of the season came in the form of a stunning free-kick against Burnley in September and, in terms of creativity, his deliveries have been invaluable in maximising Arsenal's set-piece threat with the help of specialist coach Nicolas Jover.

Saka understanding

Odegaard is widely viewed as a No 10 but it is in the right-hand channel, in the zone between the flank and the centre of the pitch, that he has done most of his best work this season.

Odegaard feature

His telepathic understanding with Bukayo Saka, who typically operates on the right-hand side of Arsenal's front three, has been instrumental in the side's recent winning run and it was clear to see in their opening goal against Watford on Sunday.

Having directed Saka's pass back into his path using his heel of his right boot, Odegaard charged into the box and met the 20-year-old's cut-back with a composed, left-footed finish into the corner.

The goal, beautifully-worked and clinically-taken, reflected the pair's mutual appreciation. "They trust each other," explained Arteta. "The more they play together, the better they will understand."

The prospect of Odegaard and Saka's understanding becoming even stronger should be a tantalising one for Arsenal supporters given the frequency with which they are already combining.

So far this season, Odegaard has found Saka more times than any other Arsenal player (122), while only Thomas Partey has directed more passes to Odegaard than Saka (118).

Arsenal's attacking emphasis has shifted as a result.

Odegaard feature
Image: Arsenal are directing a higher proportion of attacks down their right flank this season

Last season, their left flank was their main source of attacking threat, with Kieran Tierney's overlapping runs becoming a feature of their play and opponents finding ways to stop him as a result.

But this time around, Arsenal are sending a higher proportion of attacks down the opposite flank, where Odegaard and Saka's slick exchanges are proving more difficult to defend against.

Indeed, according to Opta, the pair have been involved in more shot and goal-ending pass sequences than any of their Arsenal team-mates this season. Expect more of the same against Leicester.

Defensive work-rate

Odegaard is helping to bring the best out of Saka, who scored his eighth Premier League goal of the season against Watford, and he is setting the tone for Arsenal off the ball as well as on it.

Arteta described his work-rate as "phenomenal" following his arrival on loan last year and he has continued in the same vein since making his move to Arsenal permanent in the summer.

Odegaard presses aggressively but also intelligently, harrying defenders high up the pitch and timing his runs to shut off passing lanes and disrupt opposition attempts to play out from the back.

Odegaard

He has won possession in the final third 19 times this season, which is comfortably the most of any Arsenal player, while tracking data shows he also covers an average 11.4km per 90 minutes, which is half a kilometre more than any other regular starter.

Odegaard plays an important role in his own half as well as the opposition's, tracking back diligently and offering protection on Arsenal's right side. Perhaps most impressively, only Gabriel Magalhaes and Thomas Partey have made more tackles than Odegaard among Arsenal players this season.

His off-the-ball energy was a major part of his appeal to Arteta and it has helped Arsenal improve their pressing game markedly.

This season, they are forcing more high turnovers (8.1 per game) than in either of the Spaniard's previous campaigns in charge and winning possession in the final third more frequently too.

Odegaard has played a key role in the improvement.

Leadership and maturity

Odegaard has, to quote Arteta, "been through a lot".

He had only just turned 16 when he was thrust into the limelight with his move to Real Madrid in 2015 and subsequently had to prove himself during a series of unglamorous loan moves having been unable to live up to expectations at the Bernabeu.

Martin Odegaard is unveiled by Real Madrid in January 2015
Image: Martin Odegaard is unveiled by Real Madrid in January 2015

"I think that was a really difficult period for Martin because the expectations he had straight away at his age weren't proportionate with the level he played at and what he could actually do," Arteta told Sky Sports last week.

"Then, I think he was trying to manage himself mentally, to not to put too much on himself, and not to pay too much attention to what was getting written about him."

It required a huge amount of mental fortitude to do that but Odegaard succeeded, impressing enough with Heerenveen and Vitesse in the Eredivisie to earn a loan move to La Liga's Real Sociedad, then seizing his chance with Arsenal.

The result is that, at 23, he is now captain of his national team and a "young leader" in the eyes of Arteta. But those who have known him from the start have always seen those qualities in him.

"The way he was thinking about football and how smart he was on the pitch was unbelievable," said Bersant Celina, his former team-mate at boyhood club Stormsgodset in Norway, in conversation with Sky Sports back in 2017.

Mikel Arteta gives instructions to Martin Odegaard
Image: Mikel Arteta gives instructions to Martin Odegaard

"The most striking thing about him was his maturity," added Leif Gunnar Smerud, the coach who gave him his debut for Norway's U21s. "There are many young players who have technical ability, but they need to be mature in the way they use their skills.

"Martin was amazingly strong in that area from a very early age."

Odegaard's maturity is now more apparent than ever.

Arsenal are the only side in the Premier League to have a starting line-up with an average age of under 25 this season but in Odegaard, they have an experienced head on young shoulders, and a player whose influence on the pitch is becoming more obvious by the week.

"He made a clear decision," added Arteta to Sky Sports. "He wanted to come here on loan and see what it was like, then he believed it was the right place for him. I think he is really happy where he is."

Arsenal and Arteta are just as happy to have him.

Watch Arsenal vs Leicester live on Sky Sports Premier League on Sunday from 4pm; kick-off 4.30pm

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