During lockdown, Dani Ceballos decided to stay in London.
He must have been tempted to go home to Spain and never return such was the struggle of his season-long stay at Arsenal up to that point. The midfielder had arrived on loan from Real Madrid to much fanfare the previous summer, but the hype didn’t last long as the culture of mediocrity at the Emirates Stadium engulfed him.
But Mikel Arteta is changing that culture and since lockdown he has helped to change the fortunes of Ceballos. While the 23-year-old not so long ago looked certain to return to his parent club at the end of the season, it’s now strongly suggested that the Gunners will look to keep him, whether that be on another loan agreement or a permanent basis.
“I have to return to Real Madrid and they have to make a decision because I have a contract there for the next three years,” Ceballos responded when recently asked what his future holds. “Once I know their decision, I will sit down with my family and the people close to me and see what's best for me next year.
“But the truth is I'm very happy at Arsenal. It's a club in which I already have a year of experience, so it would be very easy to return. I wouldn't have to adapt to a new league or new club with a different manager and players. I think it would be a good step for me.
"But like I said, my future depends on Real Madrid and right now I don't know their decision.”
Ceballos is right to want to stick around at Arsenal, and Arsenal are right to want to keep him. While Unai Emery misused the former Real Betis man as the number 10 in a 4-2-3-1 shape, Arteta has recognised that he can influence games more consistently in a deeper-lying position. Ceballos’ new role is more defined, and it’s certainly not as a No. 10.
Alongside Granit Xhaka, the Spaniard has been deployed as one half of a midfield two. It’s from this role that Ceballos can affect things more. Of Arsenal’s regular starters since the appointment of Arteta, he is their most prolific maker of final third passes per 90 minutes, averaging 21.9 P90. For context, his central midfield partner Xhaka averages just 15.8 P90.
While it is natural to look at Ceballos for his attacking invention and creativity, that somewhat misses what he can bring to the other side of the ball. The Spaniard is tenacious in the tackle. He might not be a Roy Keane-type or even an N’Golo Kante, but Ceballos is useful in a defensive sense, making 1.6 interceptions P90 this season. Only Lucas Torreira and Ainsley Maitland-Niles have averaged more.
Ceballos also averages 8.0 recoveries P90, hinting at the way he tends to hunt down opponents using his pace and quick turns of direction. Arteta wants energy and dynamism from his players and Ceballos brings these qualities to the Arsenal team. Along with the likes of Kieran Tierney, the Spaniard presents the face of the New Arsenal under their new manager.
Arteta’s decision to move Ceballos deeper into the heart of midfield has subsequently opened up a position higher up the pitch. This is where Arsenal are greatly lacking, especially with Mesut Ozil currently exiled from the first team at the Emirates Stadium.
Many have highlighted the need for defensive reinforcements heading into the summer transfer window, bur the Gunners also need a final third creator to sit behind the central striker and link the midfield and attack.
The diamond shape implemented by Arteta in the centre of the pitch suits Ceballos. When Xhaka drops in between the centre backs to pick up the ball and move it forward, as he often does, Ceballos moves closer to the halfway line to maintain the structure.
This gives Arsenal a numerical advantage in the build-up phase, making it easier to beat the first line of a high press and move the ball to Ceballos.
Arteta has recognised Ceballos’ ability both as a passer from deep and as a dribbler, giving him the space to do both. Arteta are a work-in-progress right now, but in the Spanish midfielder they have a player to build around. Arsenal must do all they can to make the temporary impact he has made more permanent before the start of next season.