Wednesday night pitches the two best Premier League teams against each other as Arsenal host Manchester City. In Martin Ødegaard and Kevin De Bruyne, it’s a clash that will also see two of the league’s best midfielders go up against each other. Both are the creative hub for their sides. Both are integral to their managers’ combinational play. Both have played exactly 1,693 minutes of league action. But if you could only choose one – who are you taking?
The Case for Kevin De Bruyne
He might not have been his usual self since the World Cup break, but Kevin De Bruyne is still the best midfielder in the Premier League.
It’s a testament to the incredibly high standards he’s set for himself that there have been suggestions he’s not been up to par this season, despite his record of 11 assists in 21 appearances. He’s still well within reach of surpassing the Premier League record for assists in a single season, which he already shares with Thierry Henry (20).
Although they dominate a similar area of the pitch, for two managers with associated ideals, De Bruyne and Martin Ødegaard are not directly comparable profiles.
In truth, Ødegaard is probably much closer in style to Pep Guardiola’s dream creative midfielder than De Bruyne is. He’s press-resistant, he’s calm and composed, he treats every possession like it could be his last, and he combines all of that with a genuinely impressive defensive work rate. He’s somewhat of an amalgamation of David Silva and Bernardo Silva, sharing many of their individual qualities, though not quite outranking either for anything specifically.
De Bruyne on the other hand plays almost purely on instinct. In many ways he feels like the antithesis of the style of midfielder that Pep Guardiola would build a team around. He’s a volume player rather than a methodical creator, more comparable to players like Bruno Fernandes and Trent Alexander-Arnold – they play a high-risk game, rarely turning down an opportunity to progress play at speed, always searching for space behind the opposition backline.
It’s for this reason that De Bruyne has higher highs and lower lows than Ødegaard. When everything comes off you know you’re witnessing something special, but when his aim is impaired, he can feel like a net negative in Guardiola’s system.
And yet under the Spaniard’s tutelage, he’s been the best creator in Premier League history, assisting a goal every two games, comfortably the best rate of any player/manager duo to have been paired together at least 50 times in the competition.
The distinction between De Bruyne and Ødegaard’s styles are clearer when you delve into the advanced passing metrics:
De Bruyne plays longer and quicker, while Ødegaard appears to have more of a clean, structured game.
Looking at the top 15 players for chances created in open play in the Premier League this season, we can get a clearer reflection of how their playstyles compare to their peers for these areas.
The average distance of De Bruyne’s successful passes this season is 17.4 metres, the highest of any player among this group of 15, whereas Ødegaard’s average is 14.6 metres – the ninth highest. De Bruyne’s pass success rate in open play is 73%, ranking 13th in this group, while Ødegaard’s rate of 81% ranks third. De Bruyne’s 105 open-play crosses is the most of any player among the 15, while Ødegaard’s 19 crosses are the second fewest.
It’s fair to say they are very different players.
De Bruyne plays a riskier game, always seeking to impose himself on a match. While the Belgian excels in large spaces, Ødegaard is at his best when there’s less room to manoeuvre. With the right defensive midfielder, the two of them would make for a truly world-class midfield combination if ever afforded the chance.
Though his form has dipped of late, Arsenal should be warned that a Kevin De Bruyne masterclass is never too far away, and a game of Wednesday’s magnitude would be the best time to remind the rest of the league, and Martin Ødegaard, about who still holds the crown.
The Case for Martin Ødegaard
Ok, there’s definitely an argument that Kevin De Bruyne is the best midfielder overall in the Premier League.
But nothing matters as quite much as the here and now.
So who is the most in-form midfielder in the Premier League? There’s no doubt that’s Martin Ødegaard. Don’t believe us? Well the bookmakers think so, with the Norwegian the second favourite to win the PFA Player of the Year award (just behind that other Norwegian fella).
Named as Arsenal’s captain last summer at the tender age of 24, Ødegaard has started all but one game this campaign. And while he’s always been a silky midfield operator, he’s really increased his end product this season – something that is perhaps his biggest strength over De Bruyne this term.
With 13 goals and eight assists, he has already surpassed last season’s tallies for both goal involvements (13) and goals (eight) in all competitions.
His eight league goals far surpass De Bruyne’s three, while only James Maddison has scored more goals as a midfielder this season (nine).
Barring his long-range screamer against Tottenham in January, Ødegaard has increased his goal scoring output by taking up clever positions in and around the penalty spot to pick up loose balls and rebounds. This is reflected in his underlying numbers too, taking shots from chances with a total expected goals value of 5.7 this season which already eclipses the 4.8 xG he generated last season with two fewer shots.
His non-penalty xG per 90 of 0.3 is also higher than the Belgian’s 0.18.
Benefiting from a rampant Arsenal team, Ødegaard’s increased presence in the box this season (8% of his total touches in the penalty area vs. 4% last season) has not only increased the quality of the chances he’s taking but also resulted in him getting more shots away in total.
The playmaker is taking 2.7 shots per 90 this year, a whole shot more than his output of 1.7 in 2021-22. This narrowly exceeds De Bruyne’s output of 2.5 shots per 90 this season, although it’s a little way off the City midfielder’s excellent 3.2 shots per 90 last campaign (the ninth-highest output of any Premier League player in 2021-22).
In other words, if you need your midfielder to get you goals this season, Ødegaard looks like he’s the man.
Out of possession, both midfielders are excellent pressers, but both do it in slightly different ways.
Ødegaard is undoubtedly integral to Arsenal’s press, often acting as a trigger (actively or indirectly by through verbal encouragement) for his team-mates to push forwards. In fact, only Gabriel Jesus (23) has applied more pressures per 90 for Arsenal this season than the Norwegian (21).
While the raw numbers are encouraging for Ødegaard and his intelligence is clear in the moments that he chooses to apply pressure, City’s tendency to have more of the ball on average (66% possession) compared to Arsenal (58% possession) gives fewer opportunities for Manchester City to apply pressure.
Despite applying fewer pressures overall (341 compared to Ødegaard’s 396 in total) and only ranking fifth in City’s most frequent pressers, Guardiola’s style of play lends to winning the ball back as quickly as possible to smother their opponents with relentless attacks. As a result, 48% of De Bruyne’s pressures are applied in the final third compared to only 28% by Ødegaard. Their team’s styles of play may differ but perhaps both have strengths in this area.
It’s fair to say the pair are very different midfielders. Want a swash-buckling, high-risk creative genius? KDB’s your guy. Fancy a silky midfielder who the whole team functions around (with an added goal threat)? Maybe MØ should be your MO.
Who are you taking?
And no, you can’t have both.
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