Arsenal’s latest North London Derby will be decided by how chief creator Martin Odegaard compares to Tottenham’s No. 10 James Maddison.
Martin Odegaard and James Maddison won’t square off directly when Arsenal host Tottenham in the first North London Derby of the 2023/24 Premier League season. However, how these two creative maestros compare will determine which team takes all three points, such is the influence of Odegaard and Maddison on the fortunes of their respective teams.
Arsenal only go as far as Odegaard directs them, while Maddison’s craft and efficiency have inspired Spurs’ eye-catching revival on the watch of manager Ange Postecoglou.
What’s curious about this indirect face-off is how Odegaard and Maddison are similar types of players but with several subtle differences. Those contrasts explain why each is so influential, but also why both are difficult to stop.
Odegaard’s artistry still vital for Arsenal
Mikel Arteta’s team has more than one way to unpick a defence in the final third, but Arsenal don’t truly come to life without a moment of class from Odegaard. His artistry at close quarters transforms steady but sterile possession into match-winning flair.
That artistry usually turns up in intricate spaces, according to Opta Analyst’s Ali Tweedale:
"‘Ødegaard likes to come short to get the ball, and is exceptional in tight areas. He has incredible dribbling ability, and he also does some of his best work with close combination play with teammates to work the ball past a group of opponents. He has a real preference for short passes; he has played only six long balls in five Premier League games so far this season, and has only put in three crosses in open play, attempting five more either directly from set-pieces or in the first phase of play following a set-piece.’"
The patterns are clear. Arsenal’s most gifted attackers do their best work when playing off and around Odegaard. When the two things click, the Gunners are equal parts free-flowing and free-scoring.
This is how a team’s creator-in-chief is supposed to impact games. It works for Odegaard, but there are drawbacks to being so beholding to his particular brand of flair.
Arsenal must avoid Odegaard predictability
Being overly reliant on Odegaard has been an underlying problem in recent seasons. Arteta needs to cultivate another creative force in the starting XI, with Fabio Vieira a Santi Cazorla-esque candidate.
A symptom of Arsenal’s Odegaard over-reliance manifests itself when the build-up toward the Norwegian becomes predictable. The trend is familiar by now. Odegaard taking up space in the inside right channel, with Bukayo Saka outside of him and Eddie Nketiah or Gabriel Jesus drifting from central areas toward Arsenal’s No. 8.
From there, Arsenal attempt entry into the final third in one of two ways. Either the striker drops slightly deeper to receive the ball and then tries to play a one-two with Odegaard back into the box, or Saka hugs the touchline, rolls a pass to Odegaard and darts into the area to reach the resulting flick.
It’s an oft-repeated tune and one Arsenal will try to unleash on Spurs. The results could be devastating if Odegaard ghosts into areas between Tottenham full-backs and wingers like Dejan Kulusevski and Manor Solomon.
On the other hand, if Spurs always know where Odegaard is going to be, they are better equipped to man-mark him out of the game thanks to midfield enforcers Yves Bissouma and Pape Matar Sarr.
Arsenal don’t need to focus on Maddison’s position, but Arteta’s players must stop his preferred means of delivery.
Maddison takes more direct route
Odegaard wins with neat, one- and two-touch football, but Maddison’s industry is built upon striking from distance. Tweedale summed up how Tottenham’s playmaker bypasses whole chunks of the pitch to create chances:
"‘Maddison, on the other hand, while still a decent player when passing over short distances and a better dribbler than you might think, takes every opportunity to whip a cross into the middle. He has attempted nine crosses so far this season just from open play – the third most in the Premier League of central midfielders – and 35 overall, which is the third most of all players. He has also attempted 22 long balls compared to Ødegaard’s six.’"
Going a more direct route has served Maddison well. The 26-year-old is getting the ball into the danger area more than anyone else in England’s top flight, according to WhoScored.com.
Limiting what Maddison does best will rely on Arsenal getting touch-tight to Tottenham’s main man. Declan Rice is the obvious candidate, but he’s more effective when given a roving brief to pick and choose his destructive assignments.
It would be better if the midfielder in everything but name Oleksandr Zinchenko used his central wanderings to shadow Maddison. Stopping those crosses and long passes at source will prevent Spurs from springing pacy runners like Heung-min Son behind the Arsenal back four, as has so often happened in recent derbies.
Ultimately, any contest between two front-loaded teams as attack-minded as these fractious neighbours can only be resolved by whichever creator performs best.