Coming into a new season, every fan looks at the squad, eyes up the returning veterans, and looks at the budding young talents attempting to break into starting roles. What will the team dynamic be? What does a star player like Aubameyang have to do to put the team in a good position to finish where they want? Where are rooms for improvement? Who can be the difference maker this year?
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the easy answer to the last question. It’s a given. Any time you have a player like him in your side, coming off a 29 goal year, you’re hoping they will repeat the feat. And while that kind of production is certainly what constitutes a “difference maker”, with Aubameyang’s scoring history, you come to expect it to an extent. Is it fair to demand that Aubameyang score 22 goals again in the Premier League? Probably not. He very well could, but Arsenal have a huge task on their hands to spread their scoring throughout the team.
Sadly not everyone scores quite as efficiently as Aubameyang. So to spread things around, they are going to need to create more chances and get more from the midfield. This brings me to the player who I believe could become the more important, crucial piece to Arsenal’s success (that isn’t Aubameyang) – Dani Ceballos.
It’s not going to be in the same flashy way as Aubameyang when he scores brilliant goals like he did against Fulham. And it likely won’t be through creating 4-6 chances a game the way prime Mesut Ozil did. But his ability to bomb on from where he left off last year, take his game to the next level with his comfort in the pivot, and experience within Arteta’s system.
It’s well know that from the restart of last season through to the end, Ceballos was the best midfielder within the squad. He ranked first in Arsenal’s midfield for touches, key passes, dribbles completed, tackles, interceptions, recoveries, and total distance covered.
But it has to be noted that his success came on a pretty small scale. If people, myself included, are going to hold that against Emi Martinez to varying degrees, it only feels right that Ceballos be viewed with the same lens. Fortunately for Ceballos, he isn’t competing for that spot with another star at this moment the way Martinez was, although Ceballos will have to earn it over Elneny, which means that his small scale success has a bit of excitement built in with it.
It took Ceballos nearly 2/3 of the season and a career altering position change to find his groove, but once he bought into the switch and the view that Arteta had for his future, the results spoke for themselves. It’s this level of versatility that leads me to believe he could be the most important person within the Arsenal side.
If you look back at the results after the restart, Ceballos demonstrated to the league his ability to not only thrive within a pivot, but to become one of the most complete two way midfielders within Arsenal’s squad. He retained possession, he picked out passes, he made tackles, he won the ball back, he was first to loose balls, and he proved himself capable of playing next to Granit Xhaka.
It’s this flexibility that suggests to me he could be capable of playing in whatever role is asked of him, next to whoever Arteta puts in the midfield, and find success. With two midfielders topping Arsenal’s list of targets, many hope Arsenal’s midfield will get the overhaul it needs. Personally, I still believe Arsenal will only manage to get one of their two targets. The financial strain that Arsenal are in, the fees that are getting from player sales, and the upfront costs that come with both Aouar and Partey seem a bit out of reach.
Which one Arsenal select is a question that continues to be debated. On one hand, adding another stout two way midfielder in their prime like Partey, with the ability to progress the attack through the midfield, win the ball back, bring a physical presence that Arsenal have lacked, and pass relatively well is something that would make immediate impact.
On the other hand, Aouar is something special and his ability to create chances, dribble, assist in the attack, and contribute on both ends of the ball is something Arsenal may believe they lack. This weekend we saw Willian step up as a player that could offer some this through his 2 assists, 3 key passes, and 5 created chances, but if Arteta is anything like Pep, he will strive to have as many attacking players on the pitch as possible.
Now back to Dani. What makes me so high about Ceballos is that I believe he can alter his role and succeed, regardless of who Arsenal manage to acquire.
It is believed that Arteta has a desire to shift Arsenal to a 4-3-3 formation when the backline becomes a bit more solid and the midfield get’s additional talent. With an acquisition of this magnitude, he may believe it is possible. So let’s look at the few midfield potentials.
If Arsenal land Aouar…
This first option would likely depend on the backline being nearly complete and self-reliant so that the midfield would expand their role without needing to be as responsible for their protection. Ceballos demonstrated an ability to put in tackles, read the game, and clean things up when asked. Now, he is not an outright defender, certainly not an N’golo Kante, but could he be a bit more of an attacking and skillful Henerson?
The second option is if Arteta feels he needs a bit more defensive presence or believes within his system, Xhaka’s presence at the base of the midfield would allow him to demonstrate his passing ability while commanding the midfield. This would see Willian removed from the midfield, but could allow Arteta the ability to have Ceballos read the game and flow from attacking into a role next to Xhaka where he has had success.
Similar to the Aouar formation above, this would just require Willian to be more attack focused while Partey offers a reliable two-way presence next to Ceballos.
You’ll notice that in a lot of these formations, I have had Xhaka make way. I assure you that it is not because I dislike what Xhaka offers, I just have a belief that in the process of overhauling their midfield, we may see Xhaka make way.
These are simply a few snapshot options. It doesn’t touch on the options Arteta has if he wants to include Saka somewhere along the way. In all reality, whatever option Arteta selects is going to demonstrate just how flexible and fluid Arteta’s tactics are.
More of Luiz stepping into the midfield to help, one of the two outside backs tucking in centrally to assist in cutting out transitions, a higher line, or formation options we haven’t even seen from Arteta yet. After all, we had hardly seen any notion of a 3-4-3 under Mikel when he unveiled it late last year, who is to say we don’t get another new formation to accommodate all the players he is looking to involve?
However, in any formation, composition, or alteration Arteta creates, I believe that Ceballos could have a major role in being an advocate for change. He has already undertaken a major shift in his role and position under Arteta and has seen the benefits of trusting Mikel firsthand. He understands what it takes, understands it is worth it, and has the felxibility within his game to make it succeed.
During a year where the whole team is undergoing more change, his ability to lead that change and take his game to the next level, beyond what we saw toward the end of last season, could make him the most important piece to fitting the puzzle together outside of Aubameyang.
Leave me a comment on the article, on social media, or if you liked the piece – subscribe to get notifications whenever I publish pieces.