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Arsenal signing Dani Ceballos is a once in a generation talent, but Unai Emery will expect more respect than he showed to Zinedine Zidane

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New Arsenal signing Dani Ceballos has the potential to be a generation-defining Spanish midfielder – provided he can learn when to shut up and listen.

When Real Madrid signed him in 2017 it was with the belief he would one day grow to be the finest of his generation. A player who with experience and the right finishing touches to his development would become “an important future pillar” of Madrid’s team, Florentino Pérez explained at his presentation of the signing. 

Dani Ceballos winning he 2019 UEFA European Under-21 Championship
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The European giants were not alone in that assessment.

From virtually the minute he was handed his senior Real Betis debut at the age of just 17 (making him the third youngest player ever to debut for the club), Ceballos was earmarked as special.

When he became a regular starter for Betis in the second division, scouts increasingly started showing up to watch, and after helping the Verdiblancos to gain promotion, some of the biggest clubs in Spain and England took note.

Two seasons with Betis in the top flight was enough for Madrid to decide they should pull the trigger and sign the Andalucian – before someone else did.


Ceballos has all of the on-pitch characteristics of the ideal Spanish midfielder. Technically excellent, with great vision and weight of pass, a strong shot from distance and mobile, he is also an above average dribbler, a result of being moved out to the flanks to do a job as a winger in his younger years.

In the long-term he has always been viewed as a central midfielder however, and it is in that area of the pitch that the vast majority of his football for Real Madrid has been played, forcing the youngster to improve his defensive work when not in possession.

For Spain’s Under-21s meanwhile Ceballos has generally featured as a number 10, getting him closer to the opposition area to take advantage of his powerful shot and strong final ball.

Ceballos has been highly-rated but hasn’t quite shown what he can do at Real Madrid
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But there is still some work to be done to make him the finished article.

On the pitch, that can principally be seen in his sometimes fleeting grasp of positional discipline. Off it, in his unique talent for ruffling the wrong feathers.

At present, the midfielder’s relationship with Zinedine Zidane is non-existent, and it’s self-inflicted.

Once Zidane had stepped away from the Madrid job in 2018, Ceballos wasted little time in criticising his former coach in public, not stopping to think that their paths could cross again in the future. The very near future, as it would turn out.

Zinedine Zidane and Ceballos haven’t seen eye-to-eye
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“He should explain why he didn’t give me a chance,” Ceballos complained last year, before going on to suggest that at one stage, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos injured, Zidane had changed Madrid’s system just to avoid playing him.

That analysis didn’t go down well behind the scenes at the Bernabéu and showed a concerning level of hubris from the midfielder, who apparently didn’t stop to think that the coach responsible for some of the greatest success in Real Madrid history probably wasn’t basing his tactics on a vendetta against an entitled 21-year-old.

Ceballos celebrates scoring against Celta Vigo
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That entitled streak even continued with Zidane’s successor Julen Lopetegui, someone who has always spoken highly of Ceballos and who the player initially greeted as “the best coach we could have”.

But after Lopetegui dropped Ceballos from a matchday squad to face Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League, the egocentric side of the midfielder reared its head again, as he once more decided to complain to the press upon his manager’s departure.

As someone who in his teenage years made the wrong kind of headlines in Spain for a series of unfortunate tweets ranging from ill-advised to offensive, Ceballos’ inability to know when to keep his mouth shut hasn’t passed unnoticed.

Having not yet shown enough to be a regular starter at an elite club like Madrid, the 22-year-old is at a stage in his career where he needs to put his head down, keep working, and play the strategic long-game. It’s not yet clear if he has turned that corner.

Can Ceballos do the business under Unai Emery at Arsenal
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Zidane evidently doesn’t think so, judging by his willingness to move the midfielder on this summer.

It’s thought that the coach would even have entertained moving Ceballos on for good, but the Madrid hierarchy is not yet ready to give up, and decided against using the midfielder as capital to fund their incomings in the transfer window.

The loan at Arsenal will give the talent a golden chance to try and play the around 40 games he is targeting in order to break into the senior Spain team ahead of Euro 2020 – provided he does learn when to be quiet and listen to his manager’s advice.

If Ceballos can manage to do that, and get on the good side of Unai Emery, who isn’t a coach to suffer fools lightly, then perhaps even Zidane can change his mind.



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