At the beginning of the season, I said that loanee signing Dani Ceballos ‘has the ability, if applied, to replace what we have lacked since Cazorla left in the middle of the pitch’. In just three appearances, he has demonstrated exactly what I hoped he would. More than this, he has shown that he is exactly the sort of player Arsenal have lacked since Cazorla departed. But whilst he profiles very similarly to Cazorla, he is not quite the same.
Upon Ceballos signing for Arsenal, manager Unai Emery claimed that his role was to play ‘as an 8 and as a 10’. This was shown against Burnley, where he started higher up as a number 10 before dropping to a ball-carrying number 8. This is where Ceballos wants to play. In fact, he has openly stated that ‘my position is the number 8 role’. He may occasionally find himself playing as a hard-working no.10, but for the most part he should be deployed as a ball-carrying no. 8. In this role, he which would add some much-needed dynamism to Arsenal’s side.
Santi Cazorla was similar. Signed from Malaga as a no. 10, he found himself forced out wide upon the signing of Mesut Ozil, operating from the left. In the following season, he was dropped further back in order to link defence and attack, ultimately playing in a double pivot with the resurgent Francis Coquelin. Coquelin was great at breaking up play, but lacked much by way of going forward. Cazorla was therefore relied upon for his dribbling from defence, as well as his close control. Both of these assets Ceballos demonstrated in spades against Burnley, where he grabbed two assists and was named man of the match.
Ball progression through the midfield is something which Cazorla had become renowned for during his time as a deep-lying playmaker. He averaged over two key passes per game for Arsenal, as well as sixty-five passes per 90. Time and time again, you would see Santi roll out of one challenge, perhaps two, before finding a team-mate further up the pitch, speeding up the attack. I took this for granted at the time. It was not until he was forced out of the side through injury that he was truly appreciated. Without him, Arsenal looked pedestrian and lacked ideas. Indeed, Arsene Wenger lamented his absence, saying after a disappointing draw against Middlesbrough that ‘from deep midfield into the final third his pass is always quick, accurate’. This is something that Arsenal have sorely missed.
Until now. Dani Ceballos has many of the traits required to be the long-overdue replacement to his Spanish compatriot. Last season, he averaged 1.4 successful dribbles per 90, combined with 8.2 deep progressions (that is, passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third per 90 minutes). This suggests that he enjoys picking up the ball deep and driving it forward either through dribbling himself or seeking out a team-mate. He has already shown this for Arsenal; against Burnley he completed four dribbles, four key passes, and four accurate long balls. It’s not surprising that he is being likened to Cazorla. With a passing accuracy of 91% across 18/19, Wenger’s description of a ‘quick, accurate’ pass into the final third could equally be applied to Ceballos.
A Ceballos-Torreira pivot
Cazorla’s brilliance was only allowed to shine by the players around him. In Francis Coquelin, Wenger found the perfect tough-tackling foil for the diminutive Spaniard. Further forward, Mesut Ozil was perhaps the best player to receive the ball and utilise Cazorla’s forward passes. This meant that the Spaniard flourished.
If Unai Emery decides to replicate this system, Ceballos will be deployed in his favoured number 8 role but will need a tough-tackling ball-winner next to him. Out of the current Arsenal squad, Lucas Torreira is the best-equipped to occupy this role. That is not to say that Ceballos is not competent defensively; he averages 2.2 possession turnovers and when adjusted for possession, over 5 tackles and interceptions. Perfectly respectable. But to allow him to be more expressive and creative, ideally Torreira would take the bulk of the defending duties upon himself. This would, of course, force the very divisive Granit Xhaka out of the midfield, which may be wishful thinking.
One huge contrast
In comparisons to Cazorla, one thing will inevitably stand out. No-one in world football will ever be as skilled with both feet as he was. Of his 25 Premier League goals for Arsenal, he scored fourteen with his right foot, and ten with his left. This gave him a great advantage over any other player and certainly gives him the edge over Ceballos. Cazorla played on the left-hand side of the double-pivot, where Ceballos would likely play, but the two-footedness of Cazorla means that he is was more flexible than Ceballos ever could be, able to turn out either way. With this natural two-footedness not something which Ceballos possesses, he will have to be more reliant on his close control to get him out of situations.
Ceballos is not currently as good as Cazorla, a fact which is borne out by the statistics. However, this is to be expected. He is far younger, and less experienced than Santi. This, combined with his lack of appearances for Real Madrid, means that he has not been as exposed to regular first-team minutes as his predecessor. All that being said, Ceballos is showing promise that he could, at least in the short-term, be the answer to Arsenals lack of midfield dynamism. Even if he is half as good as Cazorla, it will be a vast improvement on what Arsenal possess at present.