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From Cazorla's heir to Ozil understudy - Ceballos faces fight to salvage Arsenal legacy

07:00 GMT 11/01/2020
Dani Ceballos Arsenal 2019-20
The Real Madrid midfielder made a scintillating start to his season-long loan but it remains unclear where he fits in at the Emirates Stadium

It was a full debut as good as anything Arsenal fans had seen for years.

For 83 minutes against Burnley back in August, Dani Ceballos did more to light up Emirates Stadium than the summer sunshine.

The Spaniard, having just joined on a season-long loan from Real Madrid, had 97 mesmeric touches of the ball – 11 more than anyone else on the pitch.

He topped the stats in passes, pass accuracy and dribbles. He created four chances for his team-mates, had three shots himself and, most importantly of all, he also set up both goals in Arsenal's 2-1 win.

So, it was no surprise that when he was replaced by Lucas Torreira with seven minutes remaining, every home fan in the ground stood and sung the name of their new hero as he made his way off the pitch.

“It was my first day and it was as if I’d been playing in England 10 years," an emotional Ceballos said after the game. “I’m very grateful.”

Immediately the comparisons with another Spanish magician began. Had Arsenal finally found their replacement for the mercurial Santi Cazorla? Not according to Ceballos.

“The king is still Santi,” he said. “I have a lot to learn to become like him.”

And now – five months on from that memorable bow against Burnley – those words of caution from the 23-year-old appear very wise indeed.

Ceballos has only featured in a further nine Premier League games since that sparkling first full appearance for the Gunners, with just five of those outings coming as a starter.

He hasn’t scored or registered an assist in the league since setting up the winner for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang against the Clarets, with his only goal to date coming in a Europa League success against Standard Liege.

It must be noted, of course, that the Spain international has not played since the start of November due to a hamstring injury – but even before he was confined to the treatment room, questions were being asked about exactly where he fit in to the Arsenal team.

Was he a No.10? Or was he better served playing in a deeper midfield role? Even Unai Emery seemed unsure, given the way Arsenal’s former boss used to change his compatriot's position in each game.

There was a sense that Ceballos’ loan was heading in the wrong direction. There was no doubt about his quality on the ball, but was he suited to the hustle and bustle of the Premier League?

Those are questions that have remained unanswered given his long injury lay-off. But now we might be about to find out.

Ceballos is finally fit again and has been on the bench for the past two games, against Manchester United and Leeds. He has yet to come on, but with such a demanding schedule coming up, he should have a big part to play over the second half of the campaign.

Of course, a lot has changed since his last appearance – which came during the 1-1 draw with Wolves in November.

Emery, the man who played such a big role in convincing him to turn down a move to Spurs in favour of joining the Gunners in the summer, has gone and been replaced by Mikel Arteta.

The managerial change has transformed the mood at Arsenal, who travel to Crystal Palace on Saturday having won two successive games for the first time since the start of October.

For Ceballos, the priority now is trying to force his way back into the team. He has five months left of his loan spell and Arteta has challenged the midfielder to make life difficult for him before he returns to Madrid.

“I know him really well from Spain,” said Arsenal’s head coach. “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. Obviously, he had a long-term injury and he had an adaptation to this league.

“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. Now he is ready to step in.”

The problem for Ceballos now he is fit again is that Arteta’s Arsenal has started to take shape without him.

Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka are the preferred pairing in central midfield, with Mesut Ozil given freedom to roam in the more advanced No.10 role in front of the them.

So far, it’s a combination that has worked well. Torreira, back playing at the base of midfield, has been revitalised under Arteta – something highlighted by the fact he has just been voted Arsenal’s player of the month for December.

Xhaka has also impressed, with his spat with the club’s fans seemingly behind him, and Ozil has played with the type of energy and motivation that had seemed lost under Emery.

So, if Ceballos is to get back in the side, he will need to make a big impact whenever an opportunity arises.

In Arteta, however, he at least has a coach who has a clear view on where he should be playing.

“I like him more when he’s closer to the box rather than always coming deep to receive the ball,” said the Spaniard. “He’s a very creative player, a player who in the final third can cause problems.”

Essentially, what happens next is down to Ceballos.

With no purchase option included in his loan deal, he could just go through the motions before heading back to Madrid in the summer or he could work hard and prove he has the talent to make a big impact over the closing months of the season in the Premier League.

Arteta will demand a lot from him, as he does with every player.

How he reacts to that will go a long way towards determining whether he is remembered at Arsenal for more than just that sparkling debut against Burnley back in the summer sunshine.