Dani Ceballos can show his class and derby-day savvy for Arsenal against Tottenham
On-loan Spanish midfielder is no stranger to city rivalries and will look to impress for his new club against their North London enemies
Dani Ceballos – still young, still on the way up – is already quite the collector of big-city derbies. He has played in six editions of perhaps the fieriest local scuffle in Spanish football and lived each of those Real Betis-Sevilla matches with full, native Andalusian passion. And three times he has been on the Real Madrid side in capital contests against Atletico.
On Sunday afternoon, Ceballos has his first taste of North London’s great, raw rivalry. He cannot help but see it from a particular perspective.
Ceballos, on loan from Real to Arsenal, might very well have spent this season on the other side of the divide, Tottenham Hotspur having shown sustained interest when it became clear Madrid were willing to lend him out for nine months. Ceballos chose, under advice from friends at Arsenal and closer to home, to go with the reds not the whites.
So far, Arsenal are entitled to congratulate themselves on a coup. Ceballos arrived fresh from a leading role in Spain’s triumph at the European under-21 championship; two years earlier he had been the Player of the Tournament as his country finished runners-up in that competition.
In truth he has, at 23, long outgrown the junior international scene, will expect to win his seventh senior Spanish cap next week and to take part in Euro 2020.
He has already played a part in a winning Uefa Champions League campaign with Madrid, who signed him from Betis in 2017. There will likely be several moments in the eight months ahead when, around the Bernabeu, there are murmurs; supporters wondering why Ceballos is no longer there.
The backstory is complicated, but it is enough to report that Ceballos felt underused in the 2017/18 season by Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane and spoke publicly and critically about that after Zidane resigned in May last year. Those statements left him in an awkward spot when Zidane returned to the job 10 months later.
Ceballos, who had been given more first-team opportunities by Zidane’s short-lived successors, welcomed the opportunity for a year away on loan. He wanted to be somewhere, he said, where "I will play at least 40 matches in the season".
A respect for Unai Emery, the Arsenal manager against whom he battled through a number of Betis-Sevilla derbies when Emery coached Sevilla, was a persuasive factor.
So was the legacy of a childhood hero. Ceballos comes from Utrera, the same town as Jose Antonio Reyes, the former Sevilla, Arsenal, Real, Atletico and Spain winger who died, tragically, in a car accident aged only 35, in June.
Ceballos had looked up to Reyes, and took advice from Reyes’ family when deciding whether to join the London club where Reyes played in the mid-2000s and, indeed, where Reyes will be forever appreciated for scoring the winning goal in a 2005 North London derby.
Ceballos is a more rugged type than his hero, although has the same quick, nimble feet and relish of a one-on-one duel. Arsenal and Emery are still some fathoming out how best to deploy his wide range of qualities but, so far, enjoying the process.
A man-of-the-match performance on his first Premier League start, against Burnley, gave hints that the new No 8 should be encouraged to impose himself at the apex of midfield, supplier and partner to a front-three of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alex Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe.
Without the ball, he can be combative. Look only at his record in derbies. Ceballos was booked in his first senior Seville derby, playing for Betis against a Sevilla who released him at the age of 13. He was booked again within two minutes of coming on his second. He got a yellow card in his first Madrid derby, having come on as substitute.
“His mind is very strong,” said Emery, and recalls the moment he thought Arsenal’s best-value snatch of the summer transfer window, the compatriot signed from Madrid and steered away from Spurs, might have hit a hurdle almost as soon as he stepped onto the Arsenal training pitch.
“He received a big kick on his ankle and I was thinking ‘Pffffff, it’s broken!’ But on the Monday, he was training again, saying ‘I’m fine and want to train’. Every day, he shows his ambition, his hunger. We need players like this.”
Above all, Arsenal need them in the fixture that matters most.
Updated: September 1, 2019 02:41 PM