Knowing Your Onions

In a recent episode of the Arsecast, Andrew admitted to forgetting that Dani Ceballos was an Arsenal player. The decision to allow him to play on with a clearly pulled hamstring in a semi-consequential Europa League game back in November was a sign of the farce that enveloped the final weeks of Unai Emery’s reign.

Two months later, a former Spanish Arsenal midfielder who also wore the number 8 shirt has been the talk of the town. Mikel Arteta has reshaped the Gunners team and while it is clear there is plenty of work for the novice coach to get through, the team Ceballos steps back into will be very different to the one he hobbled away from in the teeming Portuguese rain two months ago.

Prior to his injury, Ceballos had struggled to carve out a niche in a shapeless sludge of a team. His first Arsenal start at home to Burnley threatened to rival Glenn Helder as the most misleading Gunners debut in living memory. Like a few Gunners players of recent times, Dani seems to suffer from a footballing identity crisis. He’s not quite an 8, not quite a 10 and though he likes to drift slightly to the left, he is no wide player either.

Thus far, as expected, Arteta has looked to turn Arsenal into a working Peplica of Guardiola’s preferred tactical manoeuvres. His recent remarks on Ceballos provide food for thought in this respect, “Defensively he can play in a two, rather than as a number 10. I don’t really see him as an isolated number 10 playing with two holding midfielders.”

Arsenal have been able to assert technical and tactical superiority over their opponents [albeit for limited time periods] since Arteta’s arrival. They have struggled to convert periods of dominance into an appropriate number of goals, however. This is partly because Alex Lacazette has fallen into a malaise in front of goal and partially because Nicolas Pepe has been slow to adapt to life in the Premier League.

While Mesut Özil has earned commendation for his increased intensity off the ball, we are possibly seeing that, at 31, he hasn’t quite got the athleticism to meet Arteta’s physical demands and get close to the goal too. With the likes of Ramsey and Alexis Sanchez gone, Aubameyang is one of the few players that can explode into the penalty area and cause issues with his movement.

Another one of Arsenal’s issues, in the attacking sense, is that they play with two number 6s in midfield- usually Torreira and Xhaka and Guendouzi also takes this role when he plays. Guardiola’s teams typically play with a solitary number 6 or “DM.” His preference is for one player to do the work that Arsenal are currently using two players for.

At Barcelona, Busquets anchored the midfield, with Xavi and Iniesta operating as ‘a pair of 8s.’ At Manchester City, it was a similar story, with Fernandinho buttressing de Bruyne and Silva, which seemed like a recklessly attacking midfield trio until it started chewing up the Premier League and spitting it out again.

Arteta has opted for two 6s and a 10 in the Arsenal midfield thus far, which has probably been a symptom of the tools available to him. Ceballos’ return is interesting, to me at least, because it alters the manager’s options and this at a time when the team has lost its principal goalscoring threat. Ceballos is far closer to Silva and de Bruyne in the respect that he is neither a 10 nor an 8.

Arsenal could shift the emphasis of their midfield a little by fielding Ceballos ahead of either Torreira or Xhaka. The team has missed Alex Iwobi’s skillset as a ‘final third entry’ player, bringing the ball from the middle to the final third of the pitch. The lack of ball carriers in the Arsenal team has had an impact on Lacazette and Özil in my opinion, meaning they have moved into slightly less advantageous areas of the pitch.

Ceballos certainly has ball carrying qualities and he has decent technical attributes- especially when it comes to spreading the play. He isn’t prolific in terms of end product, his career to date has shown that he doesn’t provide a huge amount of goals and assists. He does seem to be more of a ‘final third entry’ type.

Executing that role could, in theory, push some of Arsenal’s other attackers a little further up the pitch and help to wring more goals and assists from the likes of Özil and Lacazette. Ceballos likes to drift into the left half-space and Özil into the right, I think there is some potential for them to mimic the ‘pair of 8s’ preferred by Arteta’s mentor Guardiola.

The positions do not have to be defined either. Mesut is more than capable of dropping deep to pick up the ball when Arsenal are trying to feel the rhythm of a game, or else are facing an opponent with a deep defensive block. Arteta says he doesn’t see Ceballos as a number 10 but did take the time to talk up his contribution higher up the pitch.

I like him more when he’s close to the box rather than coming deep to receive the ball. He’s a very creative player, one who can cause problems in the final third, he always wants the ball, he has a big personality to play.” Arteta doesn’t see him as a 10 but sees him making an impact in the areas that a 10 operates in.

It’s not straightforward of course. Arteta has tipped the scales of the team leftwards, with the left-back pushing high up the pitch and Granit Xhaka slotting into a left half-back role to cover, while Ainsley Maitland-Niles tucks in to create a midfield three from the right. Ceballos likes to gravitate towards that left touchline, but whether he could play the same role as Xhaka is debatable. Ceballos himself admits he is a player that jumps out of holes and plays in a relatively unstructured manner.

Judging by his comments, Arteta doesn’t see Cabellos playing in any of the existing Arsenal midfield roles he has created. That could of course lead to another situation where he struggles to carve out a niche for himself in the Gunners engine room. Yet I suspect Dani’s return presents Arteta with an opportunity to be a little bolder with his midfield, at a time when Arsenal have to work out a way to become more dangerous offensively.

The coach talked about everyone having a clean slate when he arrived. Most of our minds turned to the likes of Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira, Mesut Özil and Nicolas Pepe when he said that. Ceballos very much dropped from our collective consciousness after a false start to his temporary stint in North London. I think he has a good opportunity to revitalise his fortunes in this team. “He needs to make the step forward and make things difficult for me,” his manager said last week. Time will tell whether he can.

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