The midfielder was a key player last season, but now he finds himself fighting for playing time in the Premier League and his frustration shows
Dani Ceballos told Mikel Arteta before the FA Cup final that he wanted to stay at Arsenal for another season.
The manager didn’t need much convincing to get the deal done. Ceballos had become a key player during Arteta’s reigning year, forming a midfield partnership with Granit Xhaka that helped propel Arsenal to FA Cup glory.
So, a deal was quickly reached with Real Madrid, who were happy to extend the 24-year-old’s loan to the Emirates.
“I had a great time at this club last season and never had any doubts that I wanted to return,” Ceballos enthused at the time.
Goal 50 revealed: the best 50 players in the world
“It is true that I had other options, like staying at Real Madrid and returning to the Spanish league, where there were teams interested in me.
“But I’ve been really happy with what Mikel had built in the club since he arrived. He’s the right person to bring this club back to where it deserves to be, which I believe is in the Champions League, competing against the best teams in Europe.”
It seemed the perfect combination.
The move gave Ceballos the opportunity to build on last season’s good form and try to earn a spot on the Spanish squad for next summer’s European Championship.
It also allowed Arteta to keep the services of a player suited to his style and already fully adapted to the needs of the Premier League; one that had been integral to Arsenal’s improvement towards the end of the 2019-20 campaign.
“I love Dani’s passion and commitment and he is a very skilled player,” said Arteta. “We are all happy to welcome him again. We can’t wait to see him pick up where he left off. “
But so far, things have not gone as planned.
The fact that Ceballos has more fights with teammates to his name this season than with assists tells his story. But he has also only started four of Arsenal’s eight Premier League games this season and hasn’t scored for Arteta’s side since June.
Ceballos’ only assist came in a 1-0 win over West Ham in September when he created Eddie Nketiah for the late winner.
Ironically, it happened just a week after the couple were spotted squaring off each other by the BT Sport cameras during the pre-match warm-up at Fulham on the opening day of the season.
Ceballos had been irritated by a late challenge from Nketiah in one of the passing drills and twice pushed him away before the two had to be separated by Sead Kolasinac.
The incident was soon ironed out, with Arteta attributing the fact that both players were frustrated at being omitted from the starting XI at Craven Cottage.
However, the Arsenal boss found himself facing questions once again about Ceballos battling a teammate, this time David Luiz.
The pair clashed during a training session at London Colney, with reports suggesting that Luiz punched Ceballos in the face after being upset over a late challenge from the midfielder.
Arteta has played down the incident and insists that now “no problems” among the players before Arsenal’s trip to Leeds United on Sunday.
But the fact that Ceballos was again embroiled in a failure raises doubts about the midfielder’s mentality after a difficult start to the season.
“Whether it’s a coincidence or not, it doesn’t change things much,” Arteta said. “It’s only the competitive levels we ask for and the standards we want to set.
“Obviously, it’s a very fine line between being a competitive issue and when it goes somewhere else that we obviously don’t support and don’t want.
“But it’s a contact sport and accidents will happen. It’s about how to solve them within the team and how you move from there.”
Ceballos is now in a similar position to where he was when Arteta first arrived at Arsenal just under a year ago.
Returning from his injury, he struggled to get back into the squad and was barred entirely from some match day teams on some occasions, with Arteta publicly asking for more from the midfielder.
A return to Spain in the January window was a very real possibility, but Ceballos stayed and continued to work his way into Arteta’s plans, becoming one of the first names on the team’s card over the course of the season.
Now, he must follow a similar path and should have the ideal opportunity to remind everyone of his qualities at Elland Road.
With Thomas Partey injured and Mohamed Elneny self-isolating testing positive for coronavirus, Ceballos and Granit Xhaka – another player who has found himself among the substitutes in recent weeks – look ready to go in the heart of midfield.
The pair worked wonderfully well in tandem last season and will have to do it again on Sunday as Arsenal attempt to bounce back from their grim 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa before the international break.
Partey’s arrival and Elneny’s form have left both outsiders looking in and, in Ceballos’s case, frustration clearly seems to begin to manifest.
It is not the first time that his trip to Arsenal has come to a crossroads. The first time around it went in the right direction and proved its worth.
Arteta now hopes that Ceballos can find his way back.