Martin Odegaard lives up to Arsenal captains’ legend to inspire title revival
Logically, Martin Odegaard will not follow in the footsteps of Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira. Probably, he will not become the third Arsenal captain to lift the Premier League trophy in celebration; or not this season, anyway. Yet the fact that there is still a title race, still a chance owes much to his brand of leadership: less warrior-captain than scorer-skipper, taking his technique to turn himself into more of a finisher than he ever was before.
After a decisive double against Chelsea came an opener at Newcastle. After no wins in four games, Arsenal have two in six days. Theirs may be a doomed pursuit of Manchester City, but rather than abandoning it, they have accelerated it. This, arguably, was Arsenal’s best result of the season, both in isolation and in context. Newcastle’s brilliant form, outstanding home record and ferocious start rendered it a terrific win; the consequences of defeat, and the chance City could seal the title next Sunday if they lost, made it a still better one.
Odegaard was the instigator, Fabian Schar his unwitting accomplice as the Newcastle defender turned Gabriel Martinelli’s low cross past Nick Pope to give Arsenal the insurance of a second goal. After City moved four points clear a day earlier because of classy, clinical finishing by the captain and technician in the No 8 shirt, a day later, the Gunners reduced the deficit to one point because of Ilkay Gundogan’s counterpart in an Arsenal shirt.
It has amounted to an eloquent riposte, both to Arsenal’s April blip and to some personal criticism. There were questions if the Gunners suffered from a loss of leadership when they lost leads to Liverpool and West Ham, when they were overwhelmed by City. But factor in Odegaard’s role in the late comeback against Southampton and their last seven points can be traced to the man in the armband. There is substance to the stylist, iron as well as elegance.
When he drilled in a low shot from 20 yards, it was his fifth goal in as many games. In an epic encounter that felt as eventful as many a 4-3, as each side rattled the woodwork, as a penalty was awarded and then rescinded, as errant finishing made fine saves possible, as Arsenal only doubled their lead because of an own goal, Odegaard was alone in finding a clinical touch; indeed, when he showed similar incision with a defence-splitting pass, Martinelli ought to have scored. The Brazilian could make the same case when he set up Odegaard on the stroke of half-time; instead Pope made two of his string of saves.
If Mikel Arteta has a track record of making players more productive, whether in his coaching of Raheem Sterling at City or in the career-best tallies of Martinelli and Bukayo Saka now, Odegaard is a particularly prominent case in point. He is only the second most prolific Norwegian in the division but only Erling Haaland, Harry Kane, Ivan Toney, Mohammed Salah and Marcus Rashford have more than his 15 league goals and none has been plying his trade in midfield.
Odegaard’s blend of elusiveness and class enabled Arsenal to gain control after Newcastle threatened a second evisceration of visitors from north London in swift succession. Amid a cacophonous din, there was almost a similar incendiary, explosive beginning, albeit without the five goals Tottenham conceded in 21 minutes. But Jacob Murphy had scored after 61 seconds against Spurs and struck the post after 70 against Arsenal following a surge by Joe Willock.
When Bruno Guimaraes’ shot hit Jakub Kiwior in the seventh minute and on the arm, St James’ Park saw Chris Kavanagh point to the penalty spot and sensed another landmark win. Instead, he reviewed the decision on the monitor, saw the ball had ricocheted from the defender’s leg on to his arm and overturned his own decision.
But it could conceivably have been Newcastle’s ninth win in 10 games. They have the ambition to attack the team who spent 248 days top of the league; Eddie Howe started Callum Wilson and Alexander Isak together for the first time and, in a blistering start to the second half, the Swede headed Kieran Trippier’s cross against the outside of the post. Seconds later, Aaron Ramsdale made a stunning save from Schar.
For Arsenal, Martinelli had looped a shot against the bar before Arteta’s decision to recall him in place of Leandro Trossard was vindicated by his part in the second goal. Arsenal could savour their resistance, a wonderful challenge by Granit Xhaka and a vital tackle by Kieran Tierney, in a first clean sheet since William Saliba was injured. Only Liverpool had won at St James’ Park this season, only Liverpool, City and, incongruously, Cambridge during Howe’s reign, but they joined an illustrious, if eclectic, group. And, when a hugely encouraging season threatened to peter out into anti-climax, there was suddenly a revival that has been led by the captain.