Dani Ceballos has had a strange season at Arsenal.
After starting brightly, his performance levels waned somewhat before an injury and lack of application nearly saw him return to Real Madrid in January.
But since he forced his way back into the side – coincidentally following Mikel Arteta’s appointment as head coach – Ceballos has strung together a number of impressive performances, leading to speculation galore that Arsenal may look to bring him back to the Emirates Stadium for next season, despite limited financial resources.
That sounds like a good idea on the surface, but dig a little bit deeper and there are concerns over whether such investment would be wise.
Ceballos’ arrived at Arsenal was filled with buzz and excitement – not least because he’d be heavily linked to neighbourhood rivals Tottenham – after he played a starring role for Spain at the Under 21 European Championships last summer.
From central midfield, he’d scored twice and created another two goals as his country went on to win the tournament, leaving many Arsenal fans to drool over the prospect of a talented, fresher version of Santi Cazorla arriving in north London.
When he’d arrived from Villarreal back in 2012, he had a devastating impact in his debut season; registering 12 goals from the number ten role, as well as providing 13 assists. Not only were his numbers impressive, but Cazorla could win games single handedly and pull all the strings in midfield.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, and for their supporters, this wasn’t – and isn’t – the case with Ceballos.
Perhaps the lofty expectations of the club’s supporters are to blame, but Ceballos and Cazorla are two different players entirely.
The former Real Betis is more comfortable playing in a deeper role, trying to conduct and start attacks rather than help to finish them. His role is similar to the one Santi transitioned to after Mesut Özil’s arrival, but where the mercurial Cazorla was consistently magnificent in this position, Ceballos has only shown flashes of excellence.
Consequently, Arsenal have struggled this season with creativity from midfield – a problem that Ceballos is a huge part of. Both of his goals this season have come in domestic cup competitions while his two assists – the same number as Granit Xhaka – came in the same game early on in the season.
This dearth of midfield output has left Arsenal overly reliant on their forward line – and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in particular – to both create and finish chances. If the Gunners are to invest in a midfielder this summer, it must be one with a established track recorded of making things happen. Sadly, Ceballos has scarcely contributed to any kind of attacking output – and negotiating a permanent move for him is simply not the right way to go.
Granted, Ceballos has performed well since the restart but these performances have generally come when Arsenal have played with a back three. In this system, Arteta gets his wing-backs to push higher up the field, allowing the Spaniard and Xhaka to sit deeper and spray passes around.
He’s been competent in this role to date, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Arteta is only using this system to mask his side’s defensive frailties. Stability has been the order of the day at the back, and opting to change formation has earned important victories over Liverpool and Manchester City in recent weeks.
It is, however, not how Arsenal want to play in the long run.
If, and when, Arteta chooses to transition to a 4-3-3 – a formation his mentor Pep Guardiola was especially fond of – Ceballos will find a starting role hard to come by.
Defensively, he’s not capable of playing in the pivot role, while Guardiola’s two other central midfielders are expected to push forward and contribute heavily in attack. To compare roles, rather than talent, Kevin De Bruyne notched up 13 goals and 20 assists this season – a frightening number compared to Ceballos’ meagre output.
While Ceballos is not expected to achieve those kind of eye watering figures, he does need to do more. With money tight, gambling on a player improving a side of his game that he’s so far demonstrated to be rather weak is a bold, risky move.
If Arsenal want to keep him around, fair enough – they may not be able to change system for a while. But get Ceballos in on loan once more, rather than tying him down to a permanent deal at the Emirates.