Dani Ceballos is not Arsenal’s own but masterminding Newcastle’s downfall can help secure his future
Real Madrid loanee has not made a splash at the Emirates Stadium until Sunday’s star showing, triggering the home support to chant his name as one of their own
Turkish Delight, The Arctic Monkeys and loan signings. Of the things toughest to love, those three are certainly up there.
But just as rose water with a hint of pistachio and the nostalgic qualities of Fluorescent Adolescent can go a long way, so too can a stylish Iberian with a sculpted beard and top-knot nourish the soul even if only for a little while.
It was around 65 minutes in against Newcastle that Arsenal fans began singing Dani Ceballos’s name. By rough estimate, it was only a matter of seconds and mostly emanating from those in red at the Clock End.
But it was not the first time Ceballos's name has rung out: even he has made a note of appreciating just how big a deal that is. But with the Gunners 2-0 up and their midfield taking charge of what began as a nervy affair between 11th and 12th in the table, it was only right to laud the 23-year old who had made it all possible.
The Spaniard put in a performance that might rank as the best of his 12 Premier League appearances to date. Statistically, anecdotally and perhaps even medically, there was much for him and Arsenal fans to savour.
Perhaps it’s best to start with the third of those and work backwards, because the manner in which Ceballos covered ground and put his legs in harm’s way belied that of a player both returning from injury and still getting to grips with the rough and tumble of Premier League football.
There were 83 days between picking up his hamstring injury against Vitoria Guimaraes in the Europa League at the start of November and his 21 minutes at the end of an FA Cup tie against Bournemouth on 27 January.
Much of that time was spent recovering in Spain until Mikel Arteta’s appointment on 20 December gave Ceballos an appreciation that tactical rehabilitation was as necessary as the physical work. That sense of duty underpinned by a deep frustration that he could not do more for Unai Emery began a quest for further application on the training ground.
It was this, ultimately, which gave Arteta no qualms in starting Ceballos just 20 days after that Bournemouth cameo. “I thought that Dani was ideal for that game, in that position today,” said a satisfied Arteta, a second league win in the bank at the eighth attempt. “The way he had been training, he totally deserves a chance.”
That faith was rewarded beyond elegance. In an interview with Marca, the Real Madrid loanee spoke frankly of issues around his hamstring tendons. Not that you could tell it was playing on his mind with the sprints back without the ball or clashes with Newcastle’s central pair of Sean Longstaff and Nabil Bentaleb, and whoever else, to win it back. He might have only won 26.3 per cent of his duels, but the fact he attempted 19 – the second-most of any player on the pitch – was commendable.
It was this aspect of his play that allowed both he and Mesut Ozil to play in the same midfield. On paper, certainly to the neutral, that combination looked a luxury indulgence of a problem area, like covering bathroom damp with a Manet.
But by 82 minutes, as Ceballos trudged off to applause, cuts and grazes across his knees, tendons with stories to tell, those fears were unfounded. Arsenal fans will tell you, though, this robustness has always been evident. He might look like the kind of well-groomed man who could sell you a suit on Savile Row as easily as he could sell you a dummy on Hornsey Road, but he has an appetite for the scrap. His bonus gift might have been allowing Ozil to last 90 minutes.
The flair, though, is what you come for. And if it is not the intricate turns that require barely a yard of space while seemingly affecting the entirety of the pitch, it is the quickness of his passing that shows you the level at which he operates.
Because the numbers were all there on Sunday. A 95.6 per cent success rate from his 91 attempts, of which 63 of those 85 passes made came in the opposition’s half. Though there were no assists, it was he who gave Pepe the chance to catch not just his opposing full-back, but also his opposing winger off-guard for the cross that led to Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s opener.
In that moment, just as others which did not result in a goal, he was able to bring the ball forward and play it forward at the right time. It is what Liverpool and Manchester City do well now and, heck, what Arsenal did well before. Catching teams out of step with simple acts executed simply.
Against an organised Newcastle, who Arteta praised for their solidity, it was Ceballos’ pro-activeness that prised them open. From then on, the other 10 players did as he had done.
On a personal level, this felt like the culmination of what Ceballos is trying to imprint on his own game. He was a No 10 as a kid and honed as such in his formative years at Real Betis. But he arrived as a force in an era where that role was slowly being phased out.
“Now all coaches want complete players, whereas before quality alone as enough,” he told Marca. “Now, No 10s have virtually disappeared, so you have to be more complete.” It’s worth reiterating once more that he is 23 because it is rare in football to have someone so young speak of his craft with this much self-awareness.
That, truly, might be the quality Arsenal need most from him as they begin embracing that trait themselves. As promising as victory was, it only takes them to 10th, still six points behind Tottenham who occupy a new Champions League position of 5th.
So, back to the main question: can Arsenal love him as their own when he is anything but? Well, of course they can.
What scepticism of loan-love they had after borrowing Denis Suarez from Barcelona, which both he and north London rank as “six months to forget”, has been quashed. The real issue is a longer-term relationship rests solely on the player.
His immediate ambitions are to establish himself for Arsenal to make a play for Luis Enrique’s Spain squad for the Euros. Invariably if that comes to fruition, he’ll have plenty of other offers, including the chance to start again at the Bernabeu.
Perhaps, for now, that’s how Arsenal need to look at this. A symbiotic fling that may leave both parties torn but certainly in much better places.