Few footballers have ever attracted as much attention at a young age as Martin Odegaard.
It has been three years since almost the entire sporting world was tracking the Norwegian, who, at age 15, was fielding offers from Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Roma, Liverpool and Ajax after his big breakthrough at Stromsgodset.
Although the teenager touted as a future Ballon d’Or winner signalled his desire to become an elite star by making the switch to Real Madrid, the hype surrounding him has calmed considerably in the interim, as he continues his development in more modest surroundings at Heerenveen.
Dismissed by Carlo Ancelotti in his book as a “PR signing”, Odegaard's struggles in Madrid’s Castilla side made him an easy target for media and he was unfairly painted as high maintenance before his 18-month loan move to Netherlands in January. After an underwhelming first few months, many seemed prepared to write him off, but this season Odegaard has given a reminder as to why he was once so highly rated.
An ever-present in Jurgen Streppel’s starting XI, the 18-year-old’s return to form in the Eredivisie has helped him into Norway’s national team for the first time since March 2016, and there is now talk that Real's faith in him has been restored.
Heerenveen’s good start to the campaign has been followed by a dismal run of one point from five games, but Odegaard has still managed to show his quality from the right wing in recent weeks.
He has just one assist to his name, but that first-time backheel to set up Michel Vlap against AZ is one of many bright moments from an encouraging campaign to date.
He gave last week’s 0-0 draw with Sparta its highlight as two defenders forced him to the corner. He rendered them irrelevant in an instant with a quick flick between them before charging into the box and sending the ball right onto the six-yard line, only for his good work to go unrewarded.
"I have seen some amazing moments from Martin Odegaard,” Streppel said as the teenager impressed on the artificial turf at Het Kasteel. “I told the boys: ‘Please give him the ball. He has it to run it all on this field.' He was the boss, but unfortunately in the second half he also participated in the slow pace of the game."
Odegaard has combined well with new right-back Denzel Dumfries, who overlaps and whips the crosses in to give the loanee freedom to move inside and make use of his technique and passing. The Drammen-born midfielder has great awareness and seems to see tackles and team-mates’ runs well in advance, while his control and quick thinking allow him to work wonders in small spaces as he drives down the wing or pushes in towards the edge of the box.
No Heerenveen player has created more chances than he has, according to Opta’s data, while only three in the Eredivsie have completed more dribbles.
Yet to find the net this season, there is a lack of effectiveness in Odegaard, but it can be forgiven considering his age. In targeting dangerous areas, he often runs into tight angles where there is more chance of being cut out before he releases the ball. He should be more of a direct threat, too, but he shoots from poor positions.
"I think I’ve played some good games and some not so good,” he told Heerenveen TV. “You have to learn from your mistakes and you have to develop. That's what I'm trying to do now, to work hard in training and do my best in games and hopefully I can do even better in the future.”
The spell in the north of Netherlands, far from attention, has benefited him a great deal so far. His technical style flourishes in the Eredivsie, in comparison to the physical lower leagues in Spain.
Ex-Ajax and Norway player Andre Bergdolmo recently told AS: "At Real Madrid Castilla he has developed, but at Heerenveen he has really learned what it means to be a professional footballer.”
It is no coincidence that his constant playing time with Heerenveen coincided with one of his best performances for Norway U-21s against Germany in October’s Euro qualifier.
After playing a role in their equaliser, he scored his fourth goal in 13 appearances with a fine touch to round a tackle and create space before curling it past the goalkeeper. Later, he sent a sensational long diagonal pass towards Heerenveen team-mate Morten Thorsby to bring down and make it 3-1.
"If you give him space, he is outstanding," Bayer Leverkusen and Germany defender Jonathan Tah said afterwards, but not giving him space is hardly an option either – he always creates it for himself anyway.
He will have a chance to impress Lars Lagerback in the senior side against Macedonia this week after a long absence, and Real Madrid are expected to bring him back at the end of the season but could send him on loan to Valencia.
Although it means he will have to wait for his breakthrough at the Santiago Bernabeu, it would be a big step that would allow him to advance further. At just 18, he is still only in the early stages of a long process, but he knows what is expected of him.
“Now it's up to me to progress,” he said. “This season I want to get more out of my game. More goals, more assists, more decisive actions. In one year, I want to return to Spain as a mature and better player. Because that remains the big goal: a first-team spot at Real Madrid.”