Dani Ceballos sparked the interest of many clubs as he led his Spanish side to win the 2019 UEFA European Under-21 Championship. He also secured his place for the second successive European U-21 Championship in the ‘ Team of the Tournament’. Surprisingly, the young Spanish midfielder was not part of Zinédine Zidane’s plans for the 2019/20 season at Real Madrid. Arsenal were interested and swooped in to sign Ceballos on a season-long loan in a bid to add creativity to their midfield.
The former Real Betis player early on showed glimpses of his potential but did not reach the same levels of consistency as he did for the u-21 national team that summer. To make matters worse he suffered a hamstring injury that halted his progress. However, with the arrival of Mikel Arteta coinciding with the Spanish midfielders return from injury, he has become a regular in the first team where he is now flourishing under the new Arsenal manager’s tactics. With Ceballos’ loan deal expiring soon, it leads us to the question of whether or not Arsenal should sign the Spaniard on a permanent deal.
This tactical analysis in the form of a scout report aims to evaluate whether Arteta should look to sign Ceballos on a permanent deal or let him go back to Real Madrid with the potential to bring in another player into Arsenal’s midfield.
Spanish signing underwhelms
Unai Emery brought Ceballos into the team. The Spanish midfielder played in the central attacking midfield position in Emery’s 4-2-3-1 and sometimes 3-4-1-2 formations. The Real Madrid loanee was tasked with being Arsenal’s creative spark in the team as Emery froze out Mesut Ozil from his squad as Ceballos got some much needed first-team action. The 23-year-old midfielder had some impressive performances but lacked consistency, not that he played terribly he just wasn’t creating as much as people expected.
Looking in-depth to his performances, Ceballos had a tendency to drop deep to receive the ball from his teammates thus leaving his attacking midfield position. The Spanish midfielder likes to get on the ball and orchestrate things in midfield when the ball was not being delivered to him in the attacking midfield position, he dropped deeper into space thus receiving the ball and with the ball at his feet, he could then look to set up an attack. Ceballos did this to great effect against where he dropped deeper to get on the ball and orchestrate things in midfield, as you can see in the image below. He produced a man of the match display on his full debut as he controlled the midfield.
However, Ceballos’ tendency to drop deeper to get on the ball meant that he is further away from the goal so therefore he is less creative as a result. Another result of the midfielder’s movement deeper out of his central attacking midfield position meant that there was no depth created in Arsenal’s midfield so the opposition midfield could press Arsenal higher up the pitch as there was nobody playing in behind them they needed to account for. With Ceballos so deep it meant that there was no link between the midfield to the attack which created a huge amount of space and Arsenal were disjointed as a result, which you can see in the image below.
Ceballos was not living up to his expectations but he was still adapting to the Premier League and it also did not help that Emery was constantly changing formations, tactics, and personnel which would make it hard for any player like Ceballos to be able to put in consistent performances.
New manager, new position, new impenitence
Ceballos’ season had further interruptions as he suffered a hamstring injury at the end of November. Unai Emery was sacked and replaced eventually by Arteta but initially, the young Spanish midfielder could not break into the new manager’s plans due to his level of fitness coming back from injury. When the Premier League went for its winter break Ceballos worked hard and impressed Arteta out in Dubai at their training camp. What Arteta noticed was that Ceballos liked to drop deep to get on the ball so instead of playing him as in an attacking midfield position, he decided to play him in a deeper role as a defensive midfielder in his 4-2-3-1 formation.
Arteta has given the young Spanish midfielder a clear defined role where he is an essential part of Arsenal build-up play from the back. When Arsenal are playing the ball out from the back Saka moves to a more advanced position from left-back to the left-wing. Granit Xhaka drops deeper like a left centre back as one of the centre backs moves centrally the other splits out to the right. With Xhaka moving back to the defensive line Ceballos moves to a central position deep in midfield creating a diamond, as you can see in the image below.
The 23-year-old midfielder has the sole responsibility to look for the ball off his defenders, this is made easier for him through the diamond shape created through Arteta’s tactics. This shape ensures Arsenal creates a numerical advantage in the build-up phase making it easier to beat the first line of pressure and get the ball to Ceballos.
When the Spanish midfielder receives the ball he uses his impressive passing and distribution skills to either start an Arsenal attack or progress the ball into a dangerous position for the Arsenal to create a goal-scoring opportunity.
In the image below, Ceballos shows his great passing range as he receives the ball he shapes to play a short pass out to Ozil this causes Rice to try to intercept the ball pulling the West Ham midfielder out of position. The Spanish midfielder sees the space and instead plays a sublime ball down the channel for Nketiah only for him to squander the opportunity to create a chance.
Since his move back to defensive midfield and his new role under Arteta, Ceballos has improved and is putting together consistent performances where he is orchestrating and controlling the midfield. The Arsenal manager’s tactics are playing to the 23-year-old’s strengths as he is giving clear instructions and responsibilities that he is certainly living up to.
Ceballos against Arsenal’s other midfield options
Now that this analysis has gone through Ceballos’ role and performances, the next thing to evaluate is how he ranks in terms of the other defensive midfield options that Arteta can choose from in his squad. Is Ceballos one of the better options the Gooners have at the moment? If so that is a big plus in keeping him. Or are there other options better than the Spanish midfielder? Thus making it an easy decision to let him go back to Real Madrid.
The first option this analysis will compare the young Spanish midfielder with is former Arsenal captain Granit Xhaka. There are distinct similarities between Xhaka and Ceballos as both are very good distributors of the ball when in space however when pressed Xhaka can not dribble past a player under pressure like Ceballos can in tight situations. As a result, Xhaka loses the ball in dangerous positions putting his defenders under unnecessary pressure.
Another area that Xhaka seems to fall down in compared to the Spanish midfielder is his miss timing of his tackles and him giving away unnecessary fouls which put him at risk of being sent off. In the image below, Xhaka gives away a needless foul after he is dribbled by too easily, he pulls back Jack Grealish and as a result picks up a yellow card which puts him in danger for the rest of the game.
Matteo Guendouzi has got the passing range and dribbling ability that matches Ceballos, however, the young French midfielder lacks maturity and attitude, to the point where he was dropped for the game against Newcastle after the winter break. He also had a row with Arteta and his staff in Dubai questioning whether the 20-year-old is coachable. In contrast, Ceballos worked very hard after his injury to get back into the team showing he has the right attitude and maturity to play for Arteta.
Another area Guendouzi falls down in is his concentration off the ball and his ability not to track runners from midfield. In the image below, El Gazi crosses a ball in from the left, Guendouzi switches off and does track the midfield runner, John McGinn runs in unmarked and finishes past Leno. Ceballos in comparison adapted well to his new role and does not shirk his defensive responsibilities.
Since Ceballos has come back from injury and established himself in the team Lucas Torreira has seen less game time, as he does not offer the same presence in midfield and does not have the same authority Arteta wants, that Ceballos has in his game in terms of demanding the ball off his teammates. Another reason why the young Spanish midfielder has taken the place of Torreria is due to his better passing ability.
The on-loan Real Madrid midfielder can take advantage of opportunities with his ability to hit accurate long passes. Also, he plays more passes into the final third per 90 minutes than Torreira so he is better able to create from a deep position, which fits Arteta’s tactics and style of play more so than the Uruguarian can, as you can see from the graph below.
Overall under Arteta Ceballos has shown his huge importance in the team. Under Arteta when Ceballos was not starting in the team Arsenal were conceding 0.88 goals per game, scoring 1.22 goals per game and picking an average of 1.5 points per game. In comparison, under Arteta, when Ceballos was in the team they improved dramatically conceded less (0.67 goals per game) they score more goals (2 goals per game) and most importantly they pick up more points (2.5 poin ts per game) when he is playing in the team. This shows that Ceballos is of vital importance to Arsenal’s success when he is playing in the side.
How does the Spanish midfielder fair against Europe’s finest
After analysing internally within the Gooners squad, the next stage of the evaluating process is analysing the external market, which leads to comparing Ceballos against the top defensive/central midfielders in Europe to see where he ranks. The players that the 23-year-old midfielder will be compared with are Thiago- who is probably one of the best defensive midfielders right now in Europe, the Premier League leaders defensive midfielder- Fabinho, one of the best young central midfielders and national team competition – Fabain Ruiz and a player who Arsenal are linked with in the transfer window is Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey.
The first area to be evaluated is the players’ defensive contributions. Being good defensively is vital to being successful at the base of midfield as you protect the back four and also are the main players who win back the ball for your team. From the graph above, Thiago ranks first in this area due to his combination of both 2.58 tackles p/90 and 2.5 interceptions p/90. Partey follows just behind with his impressive 2.79 tackles p/90. Ceballos ranks second from the bottom just ahead of Fabain Ruiz, the Spanish midfielder needs to improve this area of his game but he steadily improving game on game in this area as he adapts to his role.
Another area that is key to being a top defensive midfielder is the players passing range and distribution of the ball into dangerous areas to create opportunities to score from. Thiago again ranks at the top of this list as he retains the ball very well with a 90.79% pass accuracy rate and he plays an impressive 9.95 passes into the final third p/90. Ceballos competes very well in this area ranking just behind Thiago.
He also retains the ball very well 89.48% pass accuracy rate, his distribution from deep is also impressive where he completes 5.08 long passes p/90 and plays 8.54 passes into the final third p/90. Thomas Partey whom Arsenal are linked with in the transfer window ranks bottom of this list and is not as creative from defensive midfield as Dani Ceballos.
The last area being evaluated is the players attacking threat and dribbling ability. A big area that midfielders can another dimension to there game is their ability to contribute to goals and assists and be a threat from deep. Also, this analysis is evaluating dribbling ability as a player at the base of midfield will be put under immense pressure so their ability to beat the press by dribbling by players is key. From the graph above, Thiago again takes the top with an xG + xA total 0.25 which is impressive from a defensive midfielder, also what is really impressive is makes 3.12 successful dribbles p/90 which means he can ease past pressure very easily.
Ceballos also ranks very well in this area with an xG + xA of 0.19 shows he also is an attacking threat from deep, coupled with the fact he also has the ability to evade pressure with him completing 2.06 successful dribbles p/90. The on-loan Real Madrid midfielder ranks extremely well apart from his defensive contributions which he is improving on, which is very encouraging for Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta.
Overall Ceballos looks the most impressive performer at the base of Arsenal’s midfield. The 23-year-old has adapted very well to his new position and certainly improved his performances from the start of the year. The deeper role suits him much better where Arteta has simplified the position emphasising his confidence to look to get on the ball and also his ability to progress the ball forward into a dangerous attacking position. Ceballos has shown that he is already a huge asset to the team as Arsenal score more goals, concede less and picking up more points when he is in the starting line up, which I mentioned earlier.
Ceballos ranks extremely well amongst Europe’s top defensive/ central midfielders excelling in his passing distribution and his attacking threat from deep. However, the Spanish midfielder lacks in the area of his defensive contributions compared to the other top players in his position, which he needs to improve on.
Dani Ceballos comes with less risk, is still relatively young so has the potential to improve further, he understands Arteta’s tactics and most importantly has Premier League experience thus eliminating the time for a new signing to settle in the league. For all those reasons outlined in this analysis, Arsenal should sign Ceballos on a permanent basis, however, that is a crucial decision for Mikel Arteta and his staff to make this summer.