Behind the composed exterior, there is a side of Martin Odegaard that the world does not see. The former child prodigy has spent a decade under the brightest of spotlights and, over the years, he has learned to mask the emotions that burn deep within, to control the internal ferocity that has fueled his footballing journey.
“Everyone has this perception of me being really nice and calm all the time,” Odegaard tells Telegraph Sport. “But I am a different person on the pitch. I get angry, I get frustrated. I have this fire inside me. I have this passion and this drive to do my best, to win. I want to do everything perfectly. I want to be the best, all the time.”
The fire has burned, Odegaard says, for as long as he can remember. It was there in the early days, when he was just a football-obsessed kid from the Norwegian city of Drammen, and it was there when he suddenly became one of the most talked-about teenagers on the planet. From his first club Stromsgodset, to Real Madrid, to the loan spells in Holland and Spain, and now to Arsenal, it has never faded. “It has always been like this,” he says.
Perhaps this inner competitiveness and perfectionism explains why Odegaard, unlike so many other teenage sensations, has been able to fulfill his early potential. At the age of just 24, he is the captain of both Arsenal and Norway, and is now one of the most influential footballers in the Premier League. In recent months, he has consistently been the best player in the division’s best team.
“I feel like I have taken another step,” he says. “In terms of goals, assists and being more important for the team. I think I can influence the game in more ways now — not just with the ball, but in other areas. I am happy where I am, but I know I can get a lot better at many things.”
A few weeks ago, in a small exhibition space in London, Arsenal unveiled a series of artworks that now decorate the outside of the Emirates Stadium. The room was packed with club legends, executives and supporters, and Odegaard made sure he was there to meet them all, to show his face and shake their hands.
He did not have to attend, and he certainly did not have to stay for as long as he did. He arrived alone, without the minders who so often cling to top footballers, and made sure he properly engaged with the people there.
Other captains of Arsenal’s recent past, it was noted in the room, would not have been so willing. But Odegaard has embraced the responsibility that comes with wearing the armband, and he knows what it means to be the presentable face of the club. With each week, he says, he is growing more comfortable in the role.
As a leader, Odegaard takes a modern approach. “I am not someone who shouts a lot or fights with players,” he says. “It depends on the situation, it depends on the people. Some people you can talk to in a certain way, and with others you have to be more cautious. You have to read people, read situations.”
Sitting in a Hertfordshire hotel, wearing a hoodie, jeans and trainers, Odegaard looks for all the world like a normal 24-year-old. And, away from football, that is what he is. His free time is spent “watching TV, having friends over, going out for food,” he says. “Nothing crazy.”
In football terms, however, he feels far older. After all, almost a decade has passed since he made his international debut for Norway, at 15. He moved to Madrid, after an almighty scramble for his signature (Arsenal were among the teams who wanted him), when he was only 16. He has, in short, seen more in the last nine years than most footballers will see in their entire professional lives.
“I don’t feel young,” he admits, smiling. “It has been almost 10 years now. Every season just goes quicker and quicker.”
As for this campaign, Odegaard says Arsenal’s form — they are five points clear at the top of the table ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Brentford — has not been as surprising for the players as it has for the wider world. Mikel Arteta’s side were hurt by events at the end of last season, when they stumbled in the race for the top four, and that pain has proven to be a powerful force.
“The way we were working in pre-season, I had the feeling that we could do something special,” Odegaard says. “With the signings we made, and also because of what happened last year. It gave us something. A bit more hungry. A bit more determination. We were angry, you know?
“For the players it is not a shock that we are where we are. We are enjoying it. But we know we can improve. No one is satisfied. Everyone just wants to get better. The last few days [after defeat at Everton] have been maybe the best training sessions we have had for ages. That says a lot.”
Pre-season was also significant for Odegaard on a personal level. For almost his entire adult life, the summer has been a time of uncertainty. After a difficult time in his first few years at Madrid (which 16-year-old would find that straightforward?) he had loan spells at Heerenveen, Vitesse and Real Sociedad. There was never any stability, never any guarantees of where he would be the following year.
“Towards the end of the season I never knew what was going to happen in the next season,” he says. “Of all the teams I have been in, I maybe had only one proper pre-season before coming here. It has always been chaotic.”
Odegaard has now played more games for Arsenal than for any other club in his career. The wandering wonderkid has found a home in north London, where he moved for £30 million in the summer of 2021. “It was important for me to settle down,” he says.
Few people, in any industry, will ever understand what it was like for Odegaard in those teenage years. Even for him, it is difficult to understand. Playing first-team football one day, and then going to school the next, is not an experience he has shared with many others. “I knew that I was all over the news,” he says. “It was a bit weird.”
Odegaard accepts that he did not have a childhood, in the normal sense — “I wasn’t a kid” — but that is not to say he was unhappy in those days. Far from it. “I don’t feel like I missed anything,” he says. “Football was everything for me. I enjoyed it. I was always playing with older guys than me, so I was mature for my age. It felt natural.”
The biggest challenge came after leaving Stromsgodset for Madrid. Odegaard did not play as frequently as he hoped, and he did not perform as well as he could have in those early years in Spain. It feels telling that it was in Madrid, as a shy 16-year-old, that he started listening to one of Stromsgodset’s club songs before every match he played. A little touch of home? “Yeah, exactly.”
One can only imagine the stresses and pressures that Odegaard has felt at various moments over the past decade. It must have helped that, away from the pitch, he prefers to live a quiet life. Asked if he would ever want to join the family business (the Odegaards run clothing stores in Norway), he laughs: “That is too much stress. My brother is doing it now but… nah, that is not for me.”
Odegaard, of course, is not the only Norwegian with his eyes on the Premier League title. He is close friends with Erling Haaland, the Manchester City striker, but insists they rarely talk about football. “We are in a group chat,” he says. “It’s just banter and random stuff.”
So far this season, Odegaard has scored eight goals and registered five assists. But those numbers do not do justice to the vision, passes and flicks that have defined his campaign. One of those assists, a whipped first-time delivery for Gabriel Martinelli at Brighton, was perhaps the finest pass of the season so far. “Yeah, I am happy with that one,” he concedes, a little bashfully.
And so to the wider picture. Odegaard is happy, settled and thriving in a young team. Arsenal may win the title. They may not. But their captain can see the direction of travel, and he knows this is only the beginning — for him, and for the rest of the club.
“I see a lot of potential, a lot of young players,” he says. “We can spend a lot of time together. We can improve together and grow together and, with time, we are going to get better and better. There is a lot more to come.”