Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
Dani Ceballos played a starring role in Arsenal’s 4-0 win over Norwich. Could he form part of Arsenal’s future under Mikel Arteta?
Last Updated: 01/07/20 11:10pm
There was no Mesut Ozil again in the Arsenal squad to face Norwich. A back injury was given as the official reason for his absence but seeing as he is yet to play a single minute since the Premier League restart, it is reasonable to suspect that he wouldn’t have featured anyway.
Ozil was a regular starter under Mikel Arteta before the lockdown but his place in the side is no longer secure and, as he enters the final year of his contract, neither, it seems, is his future. Arsenal’s 4-0 win over Norwich added to the growing feeling that they are moving on without him.
It has been some time since Ozil has shown his best form – there have only been four assists in the last two Premier League seasons combined – but his absence still leaves Arteta needing to find his midfield creativity from elsewhere. At the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night, Dani Ceballos offered hope that he could be the man to provide it.
Ceballos is only at Arsenal on loan, of course. But there seems little prospect of a return to parent club Real Madrid under Zinedine Zidane, with whom he shares a strained relationship, and Arteta confirmed in his post-match press conference that the two clubs are already “in communication” over the possibility of extending his stay in north London.
“I really like Dani and what he brings to the team,” Arteta added.
Rarely, though, has Ceballos brought as much to the team as he did against Norwich.
The deal which brought him to north London last summer was seen as a shrewd piece of recruitment by Arsenal, but his season has been interrupted by injury. He has made just 13 Premier League starts in total. On the occasions that he has played, too many games have passed him by.
Ceballos struggled to win Arteta over at first. There were even suggestions that his loan spell at the Emirates Stadium could be cut short in January. But he worked his way back into the Arsenal team before the lockdown and he has featured prominently since the season’s resumption.
His performance against Norwich was a continuation of his match-winning cameo in Sunday’s FA Cup victory over Sheffield United, when he came off the bench in the second half and netted the decisive goal.
Ceballos did not provide the finishing touches on this occasion – that was left to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Granit Xhaka and Cedric Soares – but almost every Arsenal attack seemed to come through him. His passing was crisp and accurate but, most importantly, it was also ambitious.
After just four minutes, he could be seen picking out Alexandre Lacazette in space in a central position with a beautiful, lofted pass from the right flank. Soon after that, he was sliding through-balls into the paths of Hector Bellerin and Reiss Nelson, one of which travelled through the legs of Norwich’s Todd Cantwell on its way there.
- 82 touches (1st)
- 63 passes (1st)
- 39 pass in opp. half (1st)
- Four interceptions (1st)
- 11.1km covered (1st)
- Four fouls won (1st)
There were plenty more examples of Ceballos’ vision and flair over the course of the 90 minutes. By the end, he’d had more touches than any other player on the pitch and made 63 passes, 39 of which came in the Norwich half and all but five of which found a team-mate, giving him a 92 per cent completion rate and ensuring that Arsenal had plenty of opportunities to get in behind the visitors’ defence.
Ceballos and Arsenal will come up against far tougher opponents than Norwich in the weeks ahead, of course. But what was also encouraging about his performance was the manner in which he embraced the grittier aspects of the game.
As Ozil has discovered, there is no room for passengers in Arteta’s Arsenal. His high-intensity approach demands discipline and commitment across the board and Ceballos certainly provided it.
Arteta could be heard bellowing regular instructions to Ceballos from his technical area at the Emirates Stadium, most commonly when Arsenal did not have possession, and the 23-year-old followed them willingly, helping to protect his defence by aggressively pressing Norwich players on the ball and making more interceptions (four) than any other player.
His intensity set the tone for an Arsenal performance which looked a lot more like what Arteta wants from his side. He could be seen chasing down Norwich players right up until the end – he was the only player on either side to cover more than 11km, according to Premier League tracking data – and when he wasn’t finding gaps in Norwich’s defence, he was skipping away from his markers and winning free kicks, allowing Arsenal to regroup.
It is little wonder Arteta was full of praise for him after the game. “He’s understanding what we’re trying to do really, really nicely,” he said. “He has a big personality to play and take the ball in any area of the field and give us the continuity that we need as a team to control the games better.
“But as well without the ball. The running that he’s putting in, the tackles, every time with the interceptions, the desire to win that ball back and help the team… He has improved so much and he looks a really good player.”
Unlike the absent Ozil, he also looks increasingly like he could be a part of Arsenal’s future under Arteta.