A number of players stood out for Arsenal in their 1-1 draw with Leicester last night despite an ultimately disappointing result.
Kieran Tierney was given the Man of the Match award by broadcasters Sky Sports, Bukayo Saka recorded another assist – only Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kevin De Bruyne have more in all competitions this season – and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored another goal.
But it was the performance of Dani Ceballos that the club chose to single out on their social media the morning after.
The midfielder managed 71 touches, 11 recoveries, three interceptions, two key passes and also got the pre-assist for Arsenal’s only goal of the night.
The Real Madrid loanee has thrived since Mikel Arteta’s decision to switch to a back three, operating well in tight spaces, playing defence splitting passes from deep.
This isn’t necessarily anything new for Ceballos. These are the exact qualities that earned him a move from Real Betis to Real Madrid back in 2017.
What is new though is the defensive side the Spaniard has added to his game. Ceballos is averaging 3.3 interceptions per 90 since the formation switch, and just under two successful tackles per game.
It’s something that has not gone unnoticed by Arteta. “He was superb again,” said the Arsenal manager after yesterday evening’s match. “Defensively, Dani has made a big step forward with the way he is pressing, the amount of interceptions that he is putting in. He is enjoying it.”
Nobody does it like Dani
It’s quite the turnaround for a player who seemed destined for the exit door in January, and admitted that he came close to leaving to join Valencia on loan on deadline day.
One standout performance in his full debut against Burnley aside he had largely flattered to deceive in the red and white of Arsenal, and Arteta seemed happy for him to return to the Bernabeu at the end of his loan spell.
But this late revival may well give him cause to change his mind.
Ceballos is offering something no Arsenal midfielder can right now in terms of his play. Take the build up to Aubameyang’s goal last night. Ceballos was able to glide past Youri Tielemans with ease before picking out a ball to Bukayo Saka that perfectly intersected Caglar Soyuncu and Jonny Evans in the Arsenal defence.
Matteo Guendouzi might well have been able to dribble past Tielemans, but he has never shown signs of developing into a player of Ceballos’ passing ability. Granit Xhaka – who Ceballos has struck up a strong partnership with recently – is undoubtedly capable of making a similar pass but lacks the mobility to move away from his opponents. Lucas Torreira is generally more adept at the defensive side of the game, while Joe Willock’s strengths lie more in his running with the ball than his build up play.
Perhaps the only player capable of a similar piece of excellence is Mesut Ozil, but the German’s continuing ‘back soreness’ means that he is still unavailable for the Gunners right now.
Arsenal’s Big Decision
It leaves the club with a big decision to make on a player who seemed destined to fall under the dismal pantheon of Arsenal loan signings such as Julio Baptista, Kim Kallstrom and Denis Suarez.
Real Madrid reportedly want a fee of £40m for Ceballos, but how realistic that demand will be in a post-covid transfer market remains to be seen.
Given their well-known budget restrictions Arsenal might well be reluctant to commit to any permanent outlay on a player who has only really performed to the best of his abilities in five matches this season.
Another loan period might well be the best option for all parties. Zinedine Zidane has made no secret of the fact that he doesn’t fancy the 23 year-old who himself will be keen to get as much playing time as possible to force his way into a supremely talented Spain squad for Euro 2021.
It’s a big choice for Arsenal who both literally and metaphorically can no longer afford to make any more mistakes in the transfer market. If Ceballos keeps up this level of performance though, he may well make their mind up for them.
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