Classy Ceballos stepping out of the shadows at Arsenal
It wasn’t long ago that Dani Ceballos’ loan stint at Arsenal appeared to be heading towards a disappointing conclusion.
Having started in such breathtaking style back in August when he had the entire Emirates crowd on their feet after a scintillating home debut against Burnley, the Spaniard had struggled to maintain consistency.
There were flashes of quality but as the weeks went on, Ceballos found starts difficult to come by and was unable to nail down a position of his own in north London.
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Used sparingly by Unai Emery, who had fought so hard to sign him in the summer from Real Madrid, the 23-year-old had the look of a luxury player about him, one who might not be able to adjust to the English game.
And then when a hamstring injury sustained in the Europa League draw at Vitoria in November saw him sidelined for several weeks, doubts started to be raised about his future.
As the January transfer window approached, Ceballos gave serious thought to cutting his loan spell short and returning to Spain, but Arsenal were far from keen given how difficult it would be to find a replacement.
By now Emery had been replaced by Mikel Arteta, who had publicly challenged his compatriot to show him he warranted a place in the side.
“I had a conversation with Dani,” said Arteta in January. “When I joined the club he wasn’t here. He was in Madrid because he was doing his rehab for over a month with the team that owns him.
“I know him really well from Spain. I watched him many, many times. He always wants the ball, he has big personality to play. I like him.
“He is getting much closer to the fitness levels that I expect from him to be competing with his team-mates. He needs to get back to fitness and fight for his place like any other player.
“But he is a player that can fit our style and now he needs to make a step forward and make things difficult for me and my selection.”
Those comments came ahead of Arsenal’s 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace on January 11, a game that saw Ceballos left out of the squad altogether - despite him being fully fit.
In fact, the midfielder had to wait until the 2-1 win at Bournemouth in the FA Cup on January 27 to make his first appearance under Arteta - when he came off the bench for the final 20 minutes.
At that point it looked like his time at Arsenal would drift towards an unfulfilled end - but wind the clock forward a month and things are now looking very different.
Ceballos has featured in each of the last five games for the Gunners, starting three of them and on Monday night he came off the bench to play a huge part in the 2-0 win at Portsmouth as they booked their spot in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
The plan was actually for the Madrid loanee to have the majority of the evening off, with Arteta rotating his squad to give players who hadn't featured as much in recent weeks some game time.
But Lucas Torreira’s ankle injury after just 16 minutes forced Ceballos into action early. His arrival gave Arsenal some guile and craft in midfield and allowed them to take control of a game they had started poorly.
There were several impressive performances on the night from the visitors, with Reiss Nelson - who picked up two assists - causing Portsmouth problems all evening down the right-hand side.
David Luiz responded well to his shaky showing against Olympiacos on Thursday night. Alongside him, Pablo Mari made an assured debut following his January move from Flamengo - showcasing his quality on the ball and the composure that saw him stand out during his time in Brazil.
But it was Ceballos in the heart of midfield who really made Arsenal tick. Despite only entering the game in the 19th minute, he made 82 passes. Only Matteo Guendouzi, Luiz and Mari made more.
Of those 82 passes, 75 were successful - meaning he ended the game with a passing accuracy of 93.9 per cent, higher than any Arsenal player other than Granit Xhaka, who only made five passes having come on for the final few minutes.
What was even more impressive, however, and really saw Ceballos stand out was the way he tried to get Arsenal moving in the Portsmouth half.
Arteta’s side were ponderous in the early stages at Fratton Park, with the majority of players taking the easy route when it came to moving the ball on. It was always safety first, but as soon as Ceballos was introduced his priority was always to get on the front foot and his ability to pick out a team-mate in an attacking area helped change the game in an attacking sense.
But as we’ve seen since he returned to the side in the past few weeks, Ceballos’ influence on games has not just been confined to the forward areas.
Playing alongside Xhaka in the league games against Newcastle and Everton, the Spain international has shown a real willingness to put his foot in and help out defensively and he did that again against Portsmouth.
No Arsenal player contested in more duels than Ceballos (14) and only Guendouzi and Joe Willock gained possession more times than him, despite him only being on the pitch for 70 minutes.
It was an excellent all-round performance from a player who deserves great credit for the way he has responded to the difficulties he faced in the run up to Christmas.
Arsenal do not have an option to turn Ceballos' move permanent in the summer, so it could have been easy for the midfielder to just go through the motions until the end of the season - safe in the knowledge that he would be returning to Madrid.
But he has done the exact opposite. He has forced his way back into the side, showcasing his quality on the pitch and a real intent to fight for his place when off it.
Arteta called for him to show he warranted a place in the side and Ceballos has answered that call. A few weeks ago he was facing a fight to salvage his loan spell in north London, now he is revelling in centre stage once again.