Real Madrid loanee Dani Ceballos had a rough start to his time at Arsenal prior to the coronavirus outbreak, never quite finding a rhythm, confidence level or comfort level to consistently impact the game.
Fluctuations in form were possibly compounded by Arsenal’s tumultuous managerial escapades. Ceballos played under three different managers (Unai Emery, Freddie Ljungberg, and currently Mikel Arteta) in his six months at the club, after all. And we can be even more certain he was hindered by a significant hamstring tear that kept him out for nearly two months.
However, the enforced downtime seems to have served Ceballos well. The midfielder has arguably been the best Arsenal player since the team’s first game back on June 17 and is looking more and more an integral piece to the ambitions of his current club and manager. In this context, suggestions Ceballos will remain at the club for at least another year on loan look solid.
So what is behind Ceballos’ renaissance? The key factors are twofold: tactics and fitness.
A central hub to Arsenal’s ambitions?
Up until the 2019/20 season was suspended, Ceballos had played primarily in an advanced left-sided role.
But since the restart, he’s been used in a right sided deeper-lying No.8 role, frequently paired with Granit Xhaka (another who has thrived under Arteta).
The left-sided advanced role he played for the first half of the season led to on-field isolation. Ceballos would make and receive passes at greater distances, whereas his newly assumed deeper role has shortened those passing channels while simultaneously expanding his passing options.
This is not only a by-product of Ceballos’ new position but also a result of Arteta’s switch to a 3-4-3 formation, which creates a right-wing-back passing option, a striker dropping into the false No.9 role, and enables his counterpart central midfielder on the left (Xhaka) to tuck in closer.
This closer proximity of play and diversity of options is well-suited to Ceballos’ key offensive strengths as a technical player who can break the lines via a progressive pass or his dribble.
Lastly, Ceballos’ has become more effective defensively, leading the team (as shown earlier) in tackles made and ball recoveries post-lockdown.
This may be attributed to a more structured and intentional defensive emphasis with Ceballos focused on defending a smaller area of the pitch, but doing so more effectively.
“I trained to my limits… I’m now a player who fits into his team”
Due to the disciplined, dedicated hard work he put in during the team’s warm weather training camp in Dubai, Ceballos’ fitness has hit an inflection point.
“The truth is that I worked so hard out there,” Ceballos told Sky Sports.
“I trained to my limits and now I have a very high physical level. That, combined with the part of my game that the míster likes, which is having the ball and being a protagonist, means I’m now a player who fits into his team.
There are obvious benefits to an increase in fitness. Increased pace helps cover ground quicker, quickness and agility aid in dribbling past defenders or, while defending, tracking opponents to nick the ball away; increased strength helps out-leverage the opponent while greater explosiveness and burst gives players a better chance of winning 50/50 balls; increased endurance is necessary to cover more ground (and Ceballos has covered more ground than any Arsenal player since the Premier League restart), and perform all of these aforementioned actions more effectively for a longer duration on the pitch.
But there are also numerous unseen, and arguably even more important, benefits to upping fitness levels. The first is a decrease in injury risk as greater preparation for in-game demands significantly reduces soft tissue injury risk. This is especially important for Ceballos coming off a hamstring tear, a notoriously sensitive injury with a high risk of re-injury.
And here is where tactics and fitness go hand in hand in the modern game, because higher fitness levels are associated with increased rates of learning and learning retention. It’s possible Ceballos is now better able to learn and retain Arteta’s detailed instructions while further studying the opponent in-game and applying that learned information. This may explain why the Spaniard has adapted so quickly to a deeper role.
Lastly, better fitness is closely related to better decision-making as fatigue negatively impacts focus, memory, reaction time, and inhibits the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain, which is responsible for high-level, complex decision making. Ceballos’ central hub role as a positional defender and ball winner along with responsibilities of finding space to progress the ball and link-up play certainly require complex, sharp decision-making.
Tactical changes and fitness improvement are key underpinnings of Ceballos’ success at Arsenal in the post-lost lockdown period and will certainly play key roles in Arsenal’s FA Cup final vs Chelsea.
If the player does indeed stay in North London past the current loan, an off-season with Arteta and staff along with continued focus on his fitness may only further ignite his development and establish himself as a stalwart of Arsenal’s spine for years to come.
Dr Rajpal Brar, DPT, is a physiotherapist, movement and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA-based wellness and athletic development/performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts analyses of Lionel Messi and more) by going here.