"Hard work brings its own reward." When queried over Real Madrid new midfield general Dani Ceballos, coach Julen Lopetegui chose a well-worn cliche to explain how the 22-year-old has pushed himself into contention for a starting spot in one of the world's most competitive engine rooms.
In this case, however, the phrase is more than merited. Having cut a forlorn figure on the Madrid bench under Zinedine Zidane, Ceballos has transformed himself, leading to opportunities not just for the Blancos but also with the Spain national team at the start of the season.
The former Real Betis star has started two of Madrid's five Liga outings to date, a marked improvement for a man who made just four starts across the entire campaign in 2017-18 even with the side almost entirely focused on their Champions League exertions. What then, has changed? As Lopetegui himself confided, that extra responsibility is a product of an immense effort made by the player to turn himself into an asset at Santiago Bernabeu.
"Dani has been preparing very well over the summer. He trained well, he came here in great shape and now he is enjoying an excellent start," the former Spain boss signalled to reporters.
Goal can confirm that Ceballos acquired the services of a personal trainer to whip himself into shape during the off-season, with the goal of hitting the ground running under a new coach who, in the absence of extensive transfer activity, was open to finding fresh 'signings' from within the vast Madrid set-up. And while it may still be early, it seems that physical work has paid off handsomely.
Such a transformation has not occurred overnight, though. While he stands out on the pitch for his wonderful technical ability Ceballos has paid great heed to his fitness capabilities from an early age. As long ago as the summer of 2016 he decided to forego his summer holidays in favour of gruelling double gym sessions, a sacrifice that saw him shed four kilograms over the break and accelerate his path to the elite.
He has maintained that work ethic ever since, putting in extra shifts with his trainer at the start of 2018 when it became evident that under Zidane his first-team opportunities would range between slim and non-existent.
Ceballos has additionally benefited from the wear and tear incurred by Luka Modric during Croatia's World Cup adventures, opening up a spot in the starting line-up that otherwise might have remained elusive, but if he has remained in Lopetegui's plans it is because of his own prowess on the field.
Lopetegui, moreover, is not the only man who has liked what he has seen. Spain's Luis Enrique wasted no time in calling up Ceballos to his inaugural Roja squad, leading to a dream debut in a 6-0 victory over Modric and Croatia.
"I saw him infinite times in the Under-21s, and he did the same today that he used to do there, but in his senior debut. Very few players are at his level," the former Barca boss enthused after seeing Ceballos star against the World Cup finalists.
"The things we have seen him do with Madrid and Betis, they mark him out as different. He does not panic, he doesn't lose possession, he handles the pressure, makes the final pass, he pushes forward... He marked Modric out of the game and forced him forward.
"He is a special player, there aren't many like him in football. If a debutant plays that kind of game and accepts the challenge we can only ask more of him."
Luis Enrique, of course, is a long-time fan of Ceballos, and attempted to lure him to Camp Nou in 2017. But it is nevertheless a mark of the progress made by the youngster in such a short space of time that he has left behind the tag of Madrid's forgotten man to star for both club and country.
Those closest to the player in turn assure that he feeds off the plaudits, and feels only more motivated to succeed from the encouragement offered by his two coaches. He always had the talent and now, thanks to that hard work, he now also boasts the physical attributes to make him a star for the Merengue.