Arsenal’s summer transfer window was a little more active than expected, with the club’s net spend around £90 million (much of which will be spread across windows, it must be said). This has allowed Unai Emery to strengthen in key areas, even though stories circulated that they had a budget of less than half of that figure.
Nicolas Pepe’s switch from Lille has been a major factor in this, and the deadline-day signing of David Luiz finally addressed a longstanding issue within the centre of defence. The Gunners' recruitment team have also purchased players for the future, but arguably their cleverest move has been to attract Dani Ceballos on loan from Real Madrid – not least as north London rivals (and Champions League incumbents) Tottenham were said to want him too.
Emery was well stocked in midfield last term. The Spaniard usually opted for a solid base of two from either Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira, Mohamed Elneny or Matteo Guendouzi, while Aaron Ramsey would occupy a more advanced role. The aim was providing protection for a suspect defence, but it also allowed his attacking players extra freedom. Torreira and Guendouzi can provide more than just midfield destruction and simple passes, but Ceballos offers something entirely different.
The 23-year-old's ability to receive the ball in tight areas and escape from opponents with his close control and strength has been lacking at Arsenal for some time. “He is showing exactly what he is as a player, someone who loves to get on the ball and take the game (to opponents),” said team-mate and fellow new arrival Luiz after the Burnley game. Former Arsenal striker Robin van Persie said that Ceballos was “the best player on the pitch by a mile.”
There were times when he interchanged with Joe Willock, and didn’t always stay strictly within the confines of midfield. Ceballos completed more passes than any other player on the pitch in the final third, completed the highest number of dribbles and tackles within Arsenal's team and recovered possession most frequently. One particularly memorable 360-degree spin helped him evade two Burnley defenders, and he couldn’t be dispossessed even when he lost his footing. Then there's the accuracy of his corners, which should make Emery’s side a threat from set-pieces once again.
It was no wonder that he received three standing ovations from his new supporters when he was substituted.
Ceballos may have taken Ramsey's vacated shirt, but it’s another Spaniard who shares similarities with the on-loan Real Madrid playmaker. Santi Cazorla departed north London in 2018, although injury meant that he hadn’t featured for Arsene Wenger’s side since October 2016. Emery phoned Cazorla after taking the reins at Arsenal, to get the Villarreal midfielder’s assessment of the job he was facing.
Cazorla’s effectiveness came from his ability to create from deep and link defence with attack. He dictated games and set the tempo, but didn’t lack physicality and never shied from a challenge. Like Cazorla, Ceballos is able to influence the midfield and his efficiency in unlocking low block defences shouldn’t be underestimated. The 23-year-old will have to adjust to playing regularly once again after just 17 league starts in the last two seasons for Los Blancos, and he will be keen to play down comparisons with fan favourite Cazorla.
Ceballos found it hard to get any game time at the Bernabeu, with coach Zinedine Zidane not keen on the former Real Betis man. “It's something for him to explain, why I didn't get opportunities,” Ceballos told Radio Marca last year. “I worked, I tried to make his decisions difficult for him, but a moment comes when you see it's impossible.”
Ex-Madrid boss Julen Lopetegui did have faith in him, but results didn’t go to plan and Zidane returned. Ceballos is still keen to remain in the Spanish capital, which is why Arsenal were only allowed to bring him in on a temporary deal.
His unconventional assists against Burnley will raise expectations, but they weren’t a feature of his game in Spain. It may be that he'll add to his repertoire now, given the increase in responsibility, but it’s still important to be cautious about his adaptation to a new country and league.
The early signs are positive, however, and Ceballos's man-of-the-match display in a physical environment will certainly boost his confidence. The Spaniard will face greater tests in the Premier League and will have to demonstrate consistency to be held in the same regard as Cazorla, but couldn’t have asked for a better start to life at the Emirates.
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