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How Arsenal Must Make the Most of Dani Ceballos Loan From Real Madrid

Football fans are a sentimental bunch.

Sure, we’re also no strangers to getting overly heated when a decision goes against us. Sure, we immediately despise a player who leaves us for a rival. Sure, we all hate Tottenham whether or not we’ve actually even stepped foot in London at all. However, there is a lot of love in football. At Arsenal, there is a lot of love for Dani Ceballos.

Who now, we know, is en route back to London. Having our heart strings firmly tugged when it looked like he’d be going back to Real Betis, the turnaround of him now coming back into the fold to help lead a Champions League charge came about with welcome celerity.

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Taking the first half of last season into account and nobody would really have bat an eyelid if he’d have gone back to Spain. He wasn’t great. Now, this summer, a fan-led clamour to bring him back represented a shift in attitude for both the fans and the player.

For the stat-obsessed of us, he was an absolute dream following the restart. A change in position and attitude helped that, and now we’re all chuffed to bits.

With Mikel Arteta on the hunt for potentially two other midfield targets this summer, is Ceballos’ place in the side at risk? Or has he performed at a level that makes him a shoo-in for a starting berth? You’d say the latter, but let’s see how Arteta can get the most out of his new season-long loan addition.

The Midfield Pivot With Granit Xhaka

Arsenal, Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos (Photo by James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)

This became one of the main takeaways following Project Restart. Arteta’s decision to relinquish Granit Xhaka of much of his makeshift left-back duties came when he put the 24-year-old alongside him. The Swiss is still sometimes tasked with filling in for overlapping full-backs, but with Ainsley Maitland-Niles moving across alongside Xhaka when Arsenal are in possession down the right, Ceballos is freed up further forward.

Operating in an almost straight line on the inside right, the stability of Xhaka and Maitland-Niles covering behind (sometimes Hector Bellerin, too) meant Ceballos was free to carry the ball through the thirds without the crippling concern of losing possession and being totally exposed on the break. Y’know, like every single time under Unai Emery.

It meant he played with far more expression and with the defensive shackles off. He and Arsenal benefitted greatly from it, but something was missing…

An Attacking Presence in Front

Arsenal, Dani Ceballos

Arsenal, Dani Ceballos (Photo by James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)

Arsenal need a creative focal point in between the lines. In other news, the Pope wears a pointy hat.

We all know that a certified number ten is lacking in the starting lineup. For all Ceballos’ fine work breaking through the offensive midfield line, the dearth of Mesut Ozil-type (not actually him, obviously), meant providing variation to the attacking phases was a tough nut to crack.

Still operating in the deep-lying midfield role, the options for the Spaniard when he surged forward were often limited to the underlapping runs of either Nicolas Pepe or Bukayo Saka. Let’s not be mistaken, they worked – see the goal against Leicester at the Emirates last season – but opposition teams will nullify such avenues coming into next term.

Providing that option just behind the strikers, or even adding bodies in midfield to free Ceballos even further up, is key to getting the most out of the midfielder.

More of the Same for Arsenal

Arsenal, Dani Ceballos

Arsenal, Dani Ceballos (Photo by Chloe Knott – Danehouse/Getty Images)

Under Emery’s (mis)guidance we saw Ceballos operate in the number ten role, but it just never came off. Barring his debut performance against Burnley, he didn’t look comfortable, despite having performed so valiantly in that position not long before with Spain’s Under-21 side.

Dropping back deeper we’ve seen his best qualities come to the fore, none more so than the dogged, fighting spirit we’ve since grown enamoured with. It’s his driving with the ball and recovering possession that are his best traits though, therefore lessening that workload with him higher up the pitch is wasting talent.

While not at the level of Bruno Fernandes at Manchester United, Ceballos’ output is infectious. Others feed on his hunger for success, with that ripple effect filtering throughout the rest of the squad. It’s reason to up your own game, something Arteta himself is very fond of. Let’s hope we see more of that.

Forge an Understanding With Nicolas Pepe

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 01: Dani Ceballos, and Nicolas Pepe after scoring (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

While we shouldn’t delve too deeply into the lack of goals and assists Ceballos produced, there needs to be an improvement in his link-up with Pepe. While it’s the wing-back providing the width and striking the most important partnership with the Ivorian down the right, a lack of understanding between Ceballos and Pepe stood out last season.

Just as Pepe is beginning to find his own feet, so too is the Real Madrid man. Yet for all the trickery in the final third that the 25-year-old produces, a lack of cutting edge service from his teammate was evident.

With Saka in the side, there appeared to be a more telepathic connection, but with Pepe preferring to take his man on as opposed to play on the shoulder, a balance needs to be struck.

It is hoped, and expected, that with the pair now having 12 months of Premier League experience under their belts, this will arrive. Hopefully, in tandem.

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