What the f*** is Unai Emery doing with Dani Ceballos?

Date published: Thursday 24th October 2019 9:24

In an Arsenal side devoid of creativity, the £30million Real Madrid want for the permanent signing of Dani Ceballos looks like a bargain to most, but perhaps not to the man that matters – Unai Emery.

The Spaniard’s obsession with the double pivot of Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka, along with what we must now contractually call a Lampardian promotion of youth into the first team, has meant that Ceballos – one of Arsenal’s two genuine options for the number 10 position – has been benched for too much of this season, while the other, well…who knows what he’s doing?

Emery has insisted that the Arsenal door is not closed to Mesut Ozil, but the German’s increasingly consistent exclusion from match-day squads suggests that the door is barely ajar, if not yet slammed in the highest earner’s face.

When one door closes another one usually opens, but this doesn’t appear to be the case at the Emirates. Ceballos was presumably signed with Ozil’s waning influence in mind. The Real Madrid loanee shares the same philosophy of passing forwards and looking for pockets of space to exploit the opposition – surely a back-up, or replacement for Ozil dependent on the German’s willingness to do the necessary work in any Unai Emery team. So, a replacement then. Or so we thought…

The Spanish international has begun just five of Arsenal’s nine Premier League games this season and Ozil’s only start came alongside him. That’s four Premier League games without either one of Arsenal’s true midfield creators. Admittedly Ceballos has featured in all of those games, but that is more an indictment of Emery’s decision not to start him than a commendation for his tactical nous in bringing him off the bench.

After Arsenal’s 1-0 loss to Sheffield United on Monday – which had pundits questioning whether they have improved under Emery – Ian Wright slaughtered the Arsenal boss for not having the foresight to start Ceballos.

The Arsenal legend said: “He’s made the change at half-time, with Ceballos, so you’re thinking to yourself: Why didn’t you start him in the first place? He wants to try and get on the ball and he doesn’t mind getting on the ball anywhere to try and do his stuff.”

When he came on at half-time he looked like a player lacking confidence, but still one trying to do something different – “his stuff”. Not passing the ball aimlessly from side to side, but through the lines. Surely it is Emery’s job to build confidence through the assurances he should be providing to Ceballos, assurances that he won’t be held responsible for a misplaced pass if he’s trying to do “his stuff”, or that he will be given a full game to make the sort of impact he has hinted at providing – particularly against Burnley – before being taken off or left on the sidelines for the next.

Ceballos has started the last two European qualifiers for Spain. It seems he is good enough for a team coasting towards Euro 2020 but not for an Arsenal side sat in fifth place in the Premier League.

Emery started Joe Willock and Bukayo Saka over Ceballos at Bramall Lane, and what followed was the worst performance of the season from Arsenal – prompting Patrice Evra to regale us all with how he used to call The Gunners “my babies”.

This was not meant as a slight on the relative youth of the Arsenal team, as even the outspoken Frenchman would not attribute the loss to these exciting talents. The blame must instead be laid at Emery’s door; the door at which he should have left any thought of starting his young prospects because, as their opponents Sheffield United have proved this season, they are not shy of a battle with anyone. A battle like those Ceballos will have experienced in La Liga with Real Madrid and Real Betis, but the likes of which Willock and Saka – protected by an academy bubble – are unlikely to have seen.

Emery could also play the Spaniard deeper, instead of Xhaka, who appears to be in the ‘what do they do?’ category of midfielders along with Eric Dier. But while Mauricio Pochettino has left his midfield mystery in the cold for much of the season, Emery has – for reasons presumably clearer to those inside the club than out – cloaked his in the warmth of the Arsenal captaincy.

Xhaka is 47th in the Premier League for tackles per game and 164th for interceptions, so he’s not effective in preventing opposition attacks, and while his pass percentage stats are okay (87%), they’re overshadowed by those of Ceballos (89%), who also produces more key passes per game and has two assists to Xhaka’s nil. What are we missing? Maybe he’s still scoring highly on the Packing rating Seb Stafford-Bloor mentioned in his piece?

His midfield pivot partner Guendouzi has had a decent start to the season, buzzing around the middle of the park, winning the ball back and driving forward – the sort of qualities expected of a midfielder in a side pushing for the Champions League. Apart from enjoying the odd chorus of “shooooot” when Xhaka gets to within 30 yards of goal – owing to his much-fabled but massively over-hyped ability to score long-range howitzers – the Arsenal captain’s inclusion remains baffling to most, if not all of the Arsenal faithful. Particularly when Emery has a better defensive midfielder in Lucas Torreira sat on the bench, and Dani Ceballos – their only real hope of avoiding midfield mediocrity – right there alongside him, brought on when the boss remembers that they need to create a goal to actually score one.

Perhaps Emery is playing a very clever game: If I don’t play Ceballos, Real Madrid won’t be able to tell how much he is truly worth, so we’ll land him on the cheap. But the effect is far more likely to be that Ceballos thinks f*** this, and goes elsewhere.

Will Ford


Listen to episode one of Planet Football’s new 2000s football podcast, The Broken Metatarsal, featuring Alex Brooker and Graham Stack on the Arsenal Invincibles.

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