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Is Dani Ceballos the answer to midfield struggles?

With Arsenal in need of a permanent central midfield solution in the summer, Dani Ceballos will return to Real Madrid. Could he be the answer they are looking for?

A large reason for Arsenal’s struggles this season is their lack of creativity in the middle of the park. Transfer rumours currently circulate the club, with names like Carlos Soler, Houssem Aouar, Corentin Tolliso and Kai Havertz disseminating, all of which would add an element of attacking craft.

However, while an A-list transfer would be favourable, a player with Premier League experience and is already integrated into the team could be advantageous. With that in mind, Dani Ceballos already has his feet wet within the club.

At the end of his current loan spell in north London, Ceballos will most likely be sold from his home club, Real Madrid, this summer. The 23-year-old Spaniard would have to surpass Toni Kroos, Isco, Luca Modric and Martin Odegaard (currently on loan at Real Sociedad) to earn a spot in the starting 11.

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Ceballos only played in 14 matches this season due to a muscular injury. He was absent for the end of Unai Emery’s time at the club and returned to the squad in December. He then did not see many opportunities at the beginning of Mikel Arteta’s tenure and rumours were floating around that he wanted his loan terminated to return to Spain during the January transfer window.

There were multiple reasons that Ceballos ultimately decided to stay in north London, including Arsenal’s insistence that he would remain with the club. But one in particular was that the fans made him feel wanted there. “I feel very loved every time I play at the Emirates,” Ceballos said in an interview with the London Evening Standard.

Ceballos saw the field more consistently in February and March, and before the current postponement of the season, he finished with 10 starts in total. An injury to Lucas Torreira and an Arteta fall-out with Matteo Guendouzi could have aided in Ceballos’ increase in field time, but he was a decent contributor to the Gunners unbeaten run in the Premier League in 2020.

His strong performances raise a fair question: Should Arsenal consider Ceballos as a permanent central midfield signing in the summer?

The first thing to look at when considering Ceballos as Arsenal’s future in the midfield are his numbers from this year, which are mediocre at best. In his 14 total Premier League games, the Spaniard only produced two assists. He has no goals and just three shots on target. Looking at successful Premier League sides, all have exponentially more productive midfields. Kevin de Bruyne, James Maddison, Jordan Henderson and Mason Mount all finished the season with vast contributions in both the goal and assist categories. They also all play for teams within the top-four of the Premier League table.

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Offensively, Ceballos presents an interesting skill set. He lacks athleticism, but he is technically gifted and is a clever passer. He made 28 switches and 39 crosses this season. These were arguably his most reliable skills in the middle of the park for Arsenal. But besides his play-conducting ability and vision from deep, his production in the final third is somewhat limited, though this may be a testament to the role he played.

Ceballos’ passing percentage was down slightly this season compared to his previous two at Real Madrid. He was 85% in passing completion compared to 92% and 94%, which isn’t a drastic drop in production and can possibly be attributed to joining a new league. A stat that stands out, however, is Ceballos’ 2.66 shot-creating actions (passes, dribbles and fouls drawn) per 90 minutes. For comparison’s sake, de Bruyne sits at 6.8 per 90.

Defensively, Ceballos doesn’t provide the imposing presence that is seen in top Premier League midfielders. His slight frame doesn’t obtrude opposing attackers and his lack of pace prevents him from making long-distance recoveries. In the entire 2019-20 Premier League season, he made just 16 successful tackles. He is sometimes caught out of position when other teams begin their counter-attack and then he lacks the speed to recover, especially when tasked with having to track runners across larger spaces.

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Arsenal will inevitably have to make a central midfield signing this year. Some will argue in favour of Ceballos, but while he has some good qualities as a technically gifted midfielder, his physical play and attacking prowess aren’t on par with the best midfielders in the Premier League. For that reason, an external solution should be sought after.

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