Dani Ceballos was, at one point, losing his track at Arsenal. The instability at the club wasn’t helping anyone in the side, let alone the Spaniard himself. There was a point when reports had suggested that he was looking to leave the club during a period when he wasn’t playing as much. But as they always say in football- it is never too late.
Mikel Arteta’s appointment at Arsenal was always going to add some identity to the club. Under Unai Emery, they were losing their shape, structure and it was all a random mess. They had a soft underbelly and the team had lost whatever system they had from the Spaniard’s first season.
Because of that, Ceballos’ usage had been random in many ways. For a player who had played in a double-pivot for the Spanish Under-21s side in the European Championships in 2019, Ceballos was in a mess himself. He had been used as an attacking midfielder, a left-winger and as a central midfielder. The first 11 games brought just two assists, as Ceballos sustained a muscle injury which kept him out of action.
Before Arsenal’s 4-0 win over Newcastle United, Ceballos didn’t play a single minute despite being fit in the previous five games. He had been on the bench four times but didn’t make his return at all.
But against the Magpies, there was a shock when Ceballos started as a defensive midfielder in Arteta’s possession-based system. Rather, he was in the position that the Spain Under-21s used him for. He was a number eight in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Granit Xhaka beside him.
The 23-year-old impressed in the 4-0 win. His ability on the ball was utilised to tremendous effect. He played as many as 85 accurate passes, keeping his passing percentage at a lofty 96 percent. He had a tally of three key passes.
He did get dribbled past thrice and got dispossessed on three occasions, he is only growing into the role. In fact, tackling has hardly been his strength. The system is meant to tap into his strengths and nullify the weaknesses.
After the game, Arteta praised Ceballos for the return to first-team action. He said: “Dani Ceballos is a good example. He was injured and when he started to train I didn’t think he was fit enough.”
“He completely changed his behaviour and trained like an animal. I thought he was the best player on the pitch.”
That, in itself, says a lot about Ceballos’ mentality. When he knew he wasn’t training well enough, he put his head down and worked harder than usual.
Against Everton in a thrilling 3-2 win, Ceballos was rewarded with another start. He was the anchor-man and not the deep-lying midfielder in the 4-2-3-1. As a result, he did play 48 accurate passes with none of them being key passes. But he won two tackles and made a total of four interceptions.
It was not the perfect performance but Ceballos can certainly be more effective slightly further forward. But it was proof that he can be versatile in the role. He showed that he can be a ball-winner, apart from being a ballplayer and a chance creator.
He keeps the play moving very well and that suits how Arteta wants his team to play under him. He sets the tempo from deeper midfield, allowing the likes of Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe the freedom to move.