Arsenal will be encouraged by what they have seen from Dani Ceballos so far this season. It has been far from perfect but the Real Madrid loanee has shown glimpses of his quality.
His performance against Burnley was sparkling. He got two assists in the 2-1 win over the visitors from Turf Moor, also changing the game for Arsenal against Tottenham. He is yet to score in the Premier League, but he has scored in the Europa League. That goal came in Arsenal’s dominating win over Standard Liege.
Los Blancos would be tracking the Spaniard’s progress keenly. This is the man who had helped the Spain Under-21s win the Under-21s European Championships this past summer. He is also the man that they loaned out to the London club with the hope that he can come back and replace someone like Luka Modric.
They would have been happy with what they have seen. But they would not have been overly impressed too.
The Spaniard came on in the second half against Sheffield United and played as the attacking midfielder. The Blades were dropping deep into a low-block. But Ceballos failed to make an impact. He didn’t even play a single key pass in the whole game (via Whoscored).
In Arsenal’s home game against Bournemouth, Ceballos again played as the attacking midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 shape. But he was dribbled past as many as four times. He was dispossessed once (via Whoscored).
Against Aston Villa, Ceballos was dispossessed thrice and was dribbled past five times. He had a poor game away to Watford too.
In the Burnley game too, Ceballos was dribbled past three times and gave the ball away four times. But he also won four dribbles and played three passes. Now that is a sign of an inconsistent player who is struggling to know what his real position is.
Against Liverpool, Unai Emery decided to play Ceballos as the right-sided central midfielder in a diamond 4-4-2 shape. The idea was to sit deeper, invite the Liverpool full-backs forward and catch their centre-backs on two-on-two situations continuously.
Ceballos had a stinker. He gave the ball away four times- more than anyone else on the pitch. It showed that playing deeper and being pressed intensely wasn’t his game to play. He never looked comfortable whenever Trent Alexander-Arnold pressed high.
Against Manchester United, Emery started three defensive midfielders- Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendozi. Ceballos came on in the second-half but couldn’t really make too much of an impact.
Performances like the ones mentioned above say a lot about the situation the player is in. He is still finding himself on the pitch. He doesn’t know where his position lies. Playing deeper, he gets uncomfortable. Playing as the attacking midfielder, he sees the game pass by.
Real would look at this situation and see where he fits in at the Los Blancos. He isn’t quick enough to play out wide. But for a team that has a prolific tackler like Casemiro, Ceballos will be helped a lot defensively.
Real would also look at how the Spain Under-21s used him this past summer. In a fluid attacking system that had players like Pablo Fornals, Mikel Oyarzabal, Fabian Ruiz and Dani Olmo, Ceballos played centrally. It was a 4-2-3-1 shape but changed to a 4-1-4-1 in possession as Fabian pushed forward. Since the focus was on possession, Ceballos had more time on the ball to dictate play.
Arsenal though, don’t play that way. In Arsene Wenger’s last season as the Gunners’ boss, Arsenal had an average possession of 58.5 per cent. Under Emery last season, this came down to 56 per cent. Indeed, Emery emphasises more on playing a counter-attacking style of football. It relies on the pace offered by the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to take the ball forward.
Ceballos would love to have more possession than that to thrive. This season, Real have had 55 per cent average possession and 42 per cent of their attack has come from the left-flank (via Whoscored). Ceballos may not like that too much.
It isn’t to say that Ceballos is a bad player. He just needs the right sort of environment to thrive. A lot of the season is still left at Arsenal. He can still become a more consistent player and he likely will, because Emery knows the player he has in him.
Emery has already indicated that Ceballos needs time to get to grips with English football. He recently said:
‘Of course I know he has a lot of potential and I think this is just the beginning. ‘But always all the players need time to adapt to the Premier League. He’s in that process and I really want to accelerate it.
The occasional glimpses he has shown are too good for Real to give up on. They’re too good for even Arsenal to not pursue a permanent deal for. He can win games on his own sometimes. But he can be poor on off days. With passing time, Real would know more.