The midfielder – on loan from Real Madrid – came off the bench to add another impressive performance during Monday night’s 2-0 win at Portsmouth.
It was not long ago that Dani Ceballos’ loan stint in Arsenal seemed to be heading towards a disappointing decision.
Having started in such magnificent fashion back in August when he had the total Emirates audience on their feet following a scintillating home debut against Burnley, the Spaniard had fought to maintain consistency.
There were flashes of quality but as the weeks went on, Ceballos found begins difficult to find and was not able to nail down a position of his own in north London.
Used sparingly by Unai Emery, who’d fought so hard to sign him in the summertime from Real Madrid, the 23-year-old had the appearance of a luxury player about him, one that may be unable to adjust to the British game.
And then when a hamstring injury suffered in the Europa League draw Vitoria in November saw him sidelined for many weeks, doubts began to be raised about his potential.
Since the January transfer window approached, Ceballos gave serious consideration to cutting his loan spell short and returning to Spain, but Arsenal were far from eager given how hard it would be to get a replacement.
By now Emery was substituted by Mikel Arteta, who had openly challenged his compatriot to show him he justified a place in the side.
“I had a conversation with Dani,” stated Arteta in January. “When I joined the club that he was not here. He was in Madrid since he was doing his rehabilitation for over a month with the group that owns him.
“I know him really well from Spain. I saw him many, many times. He always wants the ball, he’s a big character to play. I like him.
“He’s getting much closer to the physical fitness levels that I expect from him to be competing with his team-mates. He wants to return to fitness and fight for his place like any other participant.
“But he’s a player that could fit our style and he wants to make a step forward and make things hard for me and my choice.”
Those remarks came ahead of Arsenal’s 1-1 draw Crystal Palace on January 11, a match that saw Ceballos left from the squad entirely – despite him being completely fit.
In actuality, the midfielder had to wait before the 2-1 win at Bournemouth at the FA Cup on January 27 to make his initial appearance under Arteta – when he came off the bench for the last 20 minutes.
At that point it seemed like his time at Arsenal would drift towards an unfulfilled ending – but wind the clock forward a month and things are now looking very different.
Ceballos has showcased in each of the past five games for the Gunners, starting three of them and on Monday night he came off the bench to play a massive role in the 2-0 win at Portsmouth as they booked their place in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
The plan was really for the Madrid loanee to have the vast majority of the evening off, with Arteta rotating his squad to give players that had not featured as much in recent weeks some game time.
However, Lucas Torreira’s ankle injury after only 16 minutes forced Ceballos into action early. His arrival gave Arsenal some guile and craft at midfield and let them take control of a match they’d started poorly.
There were several notable performances on the night by the people, with Reiss Nelson – who picked up two assists – inducing Portsmouth problems all day down the side.
David Luiz reacted well to his shaky showing against Olympiacos on Thursday night. Together with him, Pablo Mari made a confident debut after his January move from Flamengo – showcasing his caliber on the ball and the composure that saw him stand out through his period in Brazil.
However, it was Ceballos at the center of midfield who actually made Arsenal tick. Despite only going into the game in the 19th minute, he made 82 moves. Just Matteo Guendouzi, Luiz and Mari made more.
Of these 82 moves, 75 were successful – meaning that he ended the match with a passing accuracy of 93.9 percent, greater than any Arsenal player apart from Granit Xhaka, who just made five moves having come on for the last few minutes.
What was even more impressive, however, and actually saw Ceballos stand out was how he tried to get Arsenal moving at the Portsmouth half.
Arteta’s side were ponderous at the early stages at Fratton Park, with nearly all players taking the easy route when it came to moving the ball on. It was always security first but when Ceballos was introduced his priority would be to get on the front foot and his ability to pick out a team-mate within an attacking place helped change the game in an attacking sense.
However, as we have seen since he returned to the side in the last couple of weeks, Ceballos’ influence on games hasn’t just been restricted to the forward areas.
Playing alongside Xhaka at the league matches against Newcastle and Everton, the Spaniard worldwide has demonstrated a real willingness to place his foot in and help out defensively and he did that again against Portsmouth.
No Arsenal player contested more duels than Ceballos (14) and just Guendouzi and Joe Willock gained ownership more times than him, despite him being on the pitch for 70 minutes.
It was an superb all-round performance from a player who deserves great credit for the way he’s responded to the issues he faced in the run up to Christmas.
Arsenal don’t have the possibility to turn Ceballos’ move permanent in the summer, so it might have been easy for the midfielder to go through the motions until the end of the year – secure in the knowledge he would be returning to Madrid.
But he’s done the exact opposite. He’s forced his way back into the side, showcasing his caliber on the pitch and true intent to fight for his position when it off.
Arteta called for him to show he justified a place in the side and Ceballos has answered that call. A couple of weeks back he was facing a struggle to salvage his loan spell in north London, today he’s revelling in centre stage once more.