Dani Ceballos has finally joined Arsenal on a season-long loan deal from Real Madrid. The Spaniard struggled for playing time at the Bernabeu, but he is a thrilling talent who will add a new dimension to Unai Emery's midfield, writes Nick Wright...
Dani Ceballos showed off his full repertoire during Spain's European U21 Championship campaign this summer. There were long-range stunners, sublime assists, outrageous moments of skill and controlling midfield performances. The 22-year-old captained La Rojita to the trophy, providing a timely reminder of his talents and sparking a race for his signature.
Arsenal have now won it, bringing in Ceballos on a season-long loan despite interest from Tottenham. He becomes their first major signing of the summer. As well as suiting their limited budget, it is a deal which should afford Ceballos the game-time he wasn't getting at Real Madrid. It should also equip Arsenal's midfield with the qualities it lacks.
Struggles in Madrid
Before that, though, Ceballos must put a difficult period in the Spanish capital behind him.
It is two years since he moved there from Real Betis in a £15m deal which felt like a bargain following a string of similarly impressive displays at the 2017 U21 Euros. Real fought off interest from Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Juventus to get the deal done, with Ceballos arriving at the Bernabeu as one of the most exciting young talents in Spanish football.
Ceballos knew he would have to be patient given the level of competition for places in Madrid's midfield, but he certainly made a mark on his first start, scoring both goals and producing a man-of-the-match performance in a 2-1 win away against La Liga rivals Alaves in September 2017.
Zinedine Zidane insisted Ceballos would get more chances afterwards, but by the end of the campaign he had only started nine games in all competitions. Ceballos described it as a "lost season", adding: "I worked hard, but there is a moment when you see it's impossible... If Zidane had continued, I would obviously have looked for an exit."
Ceballos featured more prominently under Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari last season, but it is hardly surprising that Zidane's return to the club in March paved the way for his exit. The nature of the deal taking him to Arsenal - a loan with no option to buy - suggests he still sees his future at Madrid. But that may depend on who occupies the dugout next season.
Ceballos' falling out with Zidane raised familiar questions over his character.
The midfielder is a fiery personality with a controversial past. At boyhood club Betis, he was once disciplined for taunting a relegated opponent. On another occasion, he was forced to apologise over a string of unsavoury comments on Twitter. One coach, Juan Merino, implored him to be a "better professional and person." Another, Gus Poyet, was critical of his attitude.
The feeling now, however, is that he has grown up. Ceballos was handed the captain's armband by Spain U21 coach Luis de la Fuente Castillo this summer and he certainly seemed to embrace his seniority in the side. "I feel as though I've matured a lot as a player and as a person," he told Marca. "It's something that's helped me have such a great tournament."
Skill and flair
Zidane might argue that Ceballos still has something to prove in terms of his maturity, but there can be no doubts about his talent.
When the circumstances are right and he is focused and motivated on the job at hand, Ceballos can be a game-changer, a player with the vision, skill and ingenuity to make the difference.
Those technical qualities were apparent during this summer's U21 Euros.
As well as contributing two goals and two assists, Ceballos created more chances and completed more dribbles than anyone else at the tournament. He even made the most passes, attempting 375 with a 93 per cent accuracy rate across Spain's five games. He has already won six caps for the senior side. It would be no surprise for that number to start rising soon.
Ceballos admits Real Madrid are yet to see the best of him, but he was outstanding at Real Betis - particularly under Victor Sanchez del Amo in his final season, when he produced standout individual displays in their 1-1 draws against Barcelona and Atletico at the Benito Villamarín. It's little wonder both teams subsequently tried to sign him.
Only Neymar and Lionel Messi made more dribbles than Ceballos in La Liga that season - and that's despite the fact that he was frozen out by Poyet for the first three months of it. His performances turned heads and his importance to Betis could not be understated. "This team is Dani Ceballos and 10 others," said team-mate Ruben Castro at the time.
What Arsenal lack
Arsenal will hope he becomes just as influential for them this season. Ceballos is comfortable at No 10, where Emery may prefer him to Mesut Ozil, but much of his best football has been played in a deeper role. It is there, in the heart of midfield, that Arsenal's needs are perhaps most pressing.
Not since Santi Cazorla have Arsenal possessed a midfield schemer capable of breaking opposition lines both through passing and dribbling. The result is that - even before the departure of Aaron Ramsey this summer - they have frequently struggled to break teams down or play through an opponent's press.
The issues are borne out by the numbers. Last season, Arsenal ranked 11th in the Premier League for chances created and 12th for dribbles. The latter is particularly alarming given that they were the most prolific dribblers in the division as recently as the 2014/15 campaign - when they averaged 16 per game - twice as many as they do now.
Ceballos should provide the kind of spark they are missing. Arsenal strengthened their midfield last year with the signings of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi, but Ceballos gives them something different. His expansive repertoire will soon be lighting up the Premier League.
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