Football Features

Dani Ceballos: Why Arsenal’s ‘Cazorla Mark II’ is primed to exploit Liverpool’s midfield problem

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 19:25, 18 August 2019

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Okay, that may sound crude, but that saying holds true regarding Dani Ceballos whom Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane – for the time being – considers surplus to requirements, but the same cannot be said in north London.

His season-long loan signing at Arsenal has so far looked promising; a 26-minute cameo at St James’ Park was followed by an irresistible home debut against Burnley. Playing where compatriot Santi Cazorla once roamed, the Spanish midfielder created two goals to put the Gunners’ rivals on notice.

And no bigger challenge awaits Ceballos than visiting Anfield, the home of the European champions, on matchday three. Jurgen Klopp’s men, who boast a 100% record, will no doubt know what to expect but whether they’re capable of nullifying him is the question.

Tranquilo

A versatile midfielder, Ceballos is capable of dictating from deep or controlling the flow nearer Arsenal’s forward line, to date manager Unai Emery has fielded him in a double pivot alongside the energetic Mattéo Guendouzi and – early days, yes – a similar combination seems the way to go in their quest to be England’s best again.

The reason being is the flexibility it offers the Gunners, who boast a ferocious and fluid attack, having someone proficient in ball-retention allows the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pépé the time needed to run in behind. Burnley, a proposition in their own right, discovered Ceballos’ smoothness firsthand.

No one in Arsenal’s 2-1 victory touched the ball more than Ceballos (97) though he played all but seven minutes of that contest. Being given the ball regularly was not only a sign of trust, but recognising his capability in possession. Again, he attempted the most passes (70) with just seven misplaced.

“You’re always excited by technical players and he was so comfortable,” Joe Cole told BT Sport. “He dribbles off both feet which keeps you guessing. In areas he should be panicking he looks calm. He controlled the game. Arsenal haven’t seen someone like him for a while. He looked at home.”

A new threat

It’s no good having the ball and doing nothing with it. Ceballos isn’t someone you would describe as being wasteful or inefficient. Now entering an important phase of his career, he turned 23 earlier this month, the man from Utrera couldn’t have announced himself any better to English football.

He completed four take-ons and created the same number of opportunities. On both counts, there wasn’t anyone better on the field, regarding the latter two of those key passes ended with Arsenal finding the net. His second assist, for Aubameyang’s winner, came via a tackle.

Interestingly, he’s now created as many goals for his new team as he did for Real though in 54 fewer games, playmaking may not be his greatest asset but we’ve seen before players turning their apparent weakness into a strength. While he bagged five goals for Los Blancos, plus a further seven during a Real Betis spell, Ceballos is yet to break his Gunners duck, however, it might not be long now given he attempted the equal most shots on goal (3) by an Arsenal player.

Playing closer to the final third could be a deciding factor with Emery excited about Ceballos’ placement in his line up. “With him, it’s about using his quality in the best position,” he said.

“I spoke with him before he came here, it’s to play as an 8 and as a 10. Today, he started like a 10 but also changed with Willock in the 8 position. It’s where he can feel better on the pitch.”

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The ultimate challenge

As mentioned, it doesn’t get any bigger than facing Liverpool at their home fortress. Arsenal, in particular, haven’t fared well there recently. Last season they were humbled 5-1, it was 4-0 the campaign before, and 3-1 previously. Given their bright start, with Ceballos seamlessly assimilating to his new surroundings, you can understand why there’s a degree of confidence in getting a positive result especially with Klopp’s machine still charging.

Results matter and the mighty Reds – like their upcoming foes – are 100% in the league, but their performances are far from what we’ve come to expect. Such is the high expectations which they’ve placed on themselves. A number in need of immediate remedy is Liverpool’s meagre passing accuracy.

The Merseysiders’ average is 79.5%, which is just above the league average and ninth overall. A possible explanation, aside from settling on a fixed midfield, could be their move to playing a higher defensive line. Expect to see Ceballos feature, but as Emery touched upon, where he starts could be dependent on others.

The likelihood is he will operate in Cazorla-esque deep-lying role and he won’t be the only midfielder Liverpool will need to figure out. Oft-maligned, it’s worth noting Guendouzi has the second-most Premier League interceptions of any midfielder in the division so far (6). If the Reds’ passing game isn’t on song then it could turn into a frustrating 90 minutes for the hosts.