Real Madrid, 2017–
Dani Ceballos’ confirmation of his departure from Arsenal after two promising seasons spent there on loan presents him with an opportunity to establish himself at Real Madrid. The revered midfield of Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos continues to impress, but Real are entering a new era after the successful one overseen by Zinedine Zidane, and given the expectation they are unlikely to heavily invest in their squad, Ceballos is among those who could yet thrive as a consequence.
“My goal is to return to Real Madrid and be important at the best club in the world,” said Ceballos, an €18m signing from Real Betis in 2017. “The position of a number eight is the one that suits me best.”
Ceballos’ passing range, in midfield, is his outstanding strength. As with most Spain internationals, he is extremely talented with the ball at his feet, and comfortable operating between the lines. That talent contributes to his accurate switches of play, to him playing penetrative passes behind defences, and to him participating in the earliest stages of a build-up, all with the soundest of timing. His spatial awareness, and his ability to quickly scan his immediate surroundings, also makes him capable of protecting possession, particularly if his passing options are limited.
The variety of his passing extends to his ability to play defence-splitting through balls (below), such as those between an opposing central defender and full-back, whether from a deep or advanced midfield position – similarly to those his compatriot David Silva has so consistently delivered. It is his attempts to play lofted balls towards the far inside channel – like those so expertly executed by Kevin De Bruyne – that need to improve, particularly when in a more advanced position. Those played to the same inside channel he is occupying are of a superior quality.
Though Ceballos often assists the assist, unlike Silva, he continues to produce too little close to goal. He is a capable dribbler – he favours using the outside of his stronger right foot to quickly manoeuvre around opponents, often after briefly taking the ball towards his left and forcing his opponent to double back against the direction of their attempted press – but doesn’t apply that often enough in the final third.
That potential offers opportunities to beat players one-on-one and to create passing lanes and, should a more nimble defender be capable of resisting his attempts to dribble, he can instead play an incisive pass (below). By more consistently attempting those dribbles from advanced positions – perhaps to create a shooting opportunity for himself – Ceballos can become considerably more complete.
Role at Arsenal
An inconsistent role under Unai Emery was followed by Ceballos briefly becoming significantly more prominent under Arteta, regardless of Arsenal’s shape. Whether in the 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3 formations Arteta favoured, the movements offered around Ceballos were often similar (below). His partnership in central midfield, alongside Granit Xhaka – their priorities were to cover the central spaces in front of their defence and to link play through the inside channels, often towards the relevant wide runner – were a consistent feature of Arsenal’s promising conclusion to 2019/20.
His ability to link with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as the forward advanced beyond opposing defences offered significant potential when Ceballos was operating towards the left. He often bent passes inside the opposing right-back to complement the run Aubameyang was making so that his first touch came inside, drew the relevant central defender, and invited Aubameyang to also progress the ball into the next space, either by releasing it or by continuing his diagonal dribble.
When towards the right it was more difficult to disguise balls in behind but, unlike Aubameyang, Nicolas Pépé also preferred to receive possession while in a wide position. Alexandre Lacazette’s central positioning complemented Ceballos’ instinct to play forward passes. By Lacazette withdrawing into a deeper position and drawing a defender with him, similarly to Aubameyang and Pépé with their runs, Ceballos was given an increased space to target with his passing or by carrying possession.
With the exception of Pépé and Saka, from the point of Arteta’s arrival as Emery’s successor to the conclusion of the 2019/20 Premier League season, Ceballos made more dribbles than any other Arsenal player and, at 76 per cent, did so with a higher success rate than those two. He can continue to excel as one of two disciplined central midfielders, or even with more freedom in a 4-3-3.