Arsenal were fortunate to progress through to the quarter-finals of the Europa League on Thursday night after losing to Olympiacos at the Emirates. Mikel Arteta opted to drop new man Martin Odegaard for the second leg, and immediately came to regret that decision.
Arteta would be forgiven for thinking Arsenal had one foot in the quarter-finals after their 3-1 win over Olympiacos in the first leg.
The Gunners were impressive in the first leg, with thumping goals from Odegaard and Mohamed Elneny either side of a Gabriel Magalhaes goal earning them the advantage in the tie.
Arsenal carried that form into Sunday’s north London derby, with the Gunners beating Tottenham 2-1 at home.
Odegaard was again involved, scoring a neat finish to level the game after Erik Lamela’s flambouyant rabona.
However, when it came time for Arsenal to see out the round of 16 tie against the Greek side, Odegaard was left on the bench.
Instead, Emile Smith Rowe was played in the middle of the park in a number ten role, with Dani Ceballos frequently drifting into that same space.
The switch didn’t seem to work, however, and Arsenal created a handful of chances in the first half, with just three shots on goal.
Arsenal, who infamously decided to let Mesut Ozil leave for free in January, were void of any real creativity for the first 50 minutes of the match.
Having dropped the Real Madrid loanee, the Gunners were flat and uninspired, and it seemed they were clearly missing the newly-named captain of Norway.
Ceballos, who was arguably trying to cement his place as Odegaard’s replacement in the middle of the pitch, then compounded his evening of misery by giving the ball away sloppily prior to Olympiacos’ first goal.
In what would be his penultimate touch on the ball, he gave the ball away deep in the opposition half, and the Gunners were stunned as Youssef El Arabi slotted past Bernd Leno.
That was his penultimate touch, with his final involvement coming with what should have been a simple pass to Nicolas Pepe soaring into the stands.
Arteta had clearly seen enough, and replaced him with Odegaard for the final 35 minutes, with the Norwegian completely changing Arsenal’s approach.
The youngster, who it seems Arsenal will try their utmost to sign permanently in the summer, wasn’t afraid to drop deep to collect the ball but also didn’t play too negatively, and remained in the Olympiacos half whenever possible.
His eye for a forwards pass is something Arsenal haven’t had since the days of Ozil in his prime.
It will do the Gunners’ forwards a world of good to know they have a player behind them who can always pick apart a defence and put the ball on a plate for them.
Arsenal will likely ask Madrid to sign the 22-year-old permanently and will more-than-likely be told no.
However, the mere fact Odegaard has had this much of an impact on the side, to the point where their performances are notably poorer when he isn’t involved, is proof that Arteta made the right call by signing him.
Odegaard proved his worth late in the game after slotting through a pass for Pepe, only for the Ivorian winger to fluff his lines. The ball came back to Odegaard, however, and a neat feint earned him space in front of goal, only for his effort to sail over the bar.
Just minutes later, he once again picked apart the Olympiacos defence after pressing to win the ball back, only for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to slice an effort wide.
Even if Arsenal aren’t able to sign him permanently this summer, Odegaard’s brief time at Arsenal has proved Arteta was right to make that position his top priority.