A lot can change in a short space of time in football. When the January window opened, the feeling was Dani Ceballos would cut short his loan spell with Arsenal and return to Real Madrid. Now that seems far-fetched.
Despite initially impressing, the Spaniard had failed to build on that early hype – he registered two assists on his full debut – and injuries meant he missed two months worth of action, only returning to the first-team fold at the end of January.
However, in the space of a month, the 23-year-old has forced his way into manager Mikel Arteta’s plans. Responding to the challenge set by the former Manchester City assistant, the one-time Real Betis man as taken his game up another level.
“I had a conversation with Dani,” said Arteta in January. “When I joined the club he wasn’t here. He was in Madrid because he was doing his rehab for over a month with the team that owns him.
“I know him really well from Spain. I watched him many, many times. He always wants the ball, he has big personality to play. I like him. He is getting much closer to the fitness levels that I expect from him to be competing with his team-mates. He needs to get back to fitness and fight for his place like any other player.
“But he is a player that can fit our style and now he needs to make a step forward and make things difficult for me and my selection.”
In the space of a month, Ceballos went from being viewed as a flop to being the poster boy of this new-look Arsenal team.
He started in the 4-0 win over Newcastle United, played 30 minutes in the first-leg Europa League win over Olympiacos and then returned to the starting XI for the 3-2 victory over Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton. The loss in the return leg against Olympiacos is the only blemish to his record since Arteta turned to his compatriot to set the tempo in midfield.
The Spain international seems right at home in the Arsenal team now. With the Gunners looking to dominate the ball and piece together breathtaking attacking sequences, it plays to his strengths.
He’s now attempting 20 more passes per 90 and his pass completion percentage has risen from 88 per cent to 93. He’s creating more chances, 0.25 on a per 90 basis, and the defensive side of his game has also improved. Before his injury, Ceballos was averaging 7.2 ball recoveries with the majority of those arriving in the defensive third. Now, however, close to 70 per cent of them come in the middle third of the pitch.
Arsenal don’t have a clause in his deal to make the move a permanent one. But if Ceballos continues to impress, Arteta will surely want him to stick around. Not just because of his performances on the pitch but because of his attitude off it.
In Ceballos’ situation, out of the side and out of favour, some would have cut the loan short or simply been happy to just see out their time at the Emirates on the bench. But the rumoured Valencia transfer target has dug deep and shown his desire, tenacity and work-rate, forcing Arteta to reshuffle his pack to fit him in.
Ceballos’ efforts have been rewarded and he’s rightly getting plaudits. Arteta’s decision to include him has been vindicated, too, with the Arsenal No.8 putting in a number of classy performances.
It could be a marriage made in heaven for the two Spaniards. With Champions League football still within reach, it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Gunners.