For Arsenal fans, probably the single most depressing aspect of the club’s long-term problems is that they have been going on for so very, very long. It is arguable that the Gunners have not had a proper defence for nearly a decade now (the last Arsenal back four to merit the use of the word defence was probably the Gallas-Toure-Clichy-Eboue combination of the 2008/09 season). However, it is not only at the back where Arsenal have been in decline for so long. They have also lacked a midfield general since Santi Cazorla’s series of severe injury problems began in the autumn of 2015. Now, with the arrival of Dani Ceballos on loan from Real Madrid, they might finally have found a playmaker deserving of the name.
Dani Ceballos Can be the New Santi Cazorla at Arsenal
Cazorla Wasn’t Just a Number Ten
Amid all the other wreckage at the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign, it was easy to overlook the importance of the long-term absence of Santi Cazorla. Cazorla had arrived at the club in the summer of 2012, alongside Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, as Wenger tried to appease Arsenal fans after the sale of the club’s star player and top scorer in the previous season, Robin van Persie, to hated rivals Manchester United. Initially, Cazorla may have been the least heralded of the trio of new arrivals, but it was not long before he had become the most important of them and the most adored by the club’s fans.
That was because Cazorla may have arrived at Arsenal as a number ten, or even a number ten who could also play wide, but his best performances for the club by far came when he was employed in midfield, especially when he was paired with a dogged tackler such as Francis Coquelin. In the brief period in the middle of this decade when it looked as if Wenger might just be able to create another title-challenging team at Arsenal, Cazorla was at his best, effortlessly collecting the ball from defence, dribbling forward and then invariably finding an attacking player with one of his probing passes.
In fact, almost all of Arsenal’s best performances at that time saw Cazorla at the heart of everything good that the Gunners were doing. In particular, when Arsenal achieved one of their rare victories away at another top club, beating Manchester City away early in 2015, Cazorla virtually ran the show, which was no mean feat considering he was up against the fearsome City midfield of Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and David Silva. He carried that form on throughout the second half of the 2014/15 season, which culminated in Arsenal retaining the FA Cup by thrashing Aston Villa 4-0 at Wembley. Even as the Arsenal players were being interviewed after the game or having celebratory photographs taken, almost to a man they said that the focus now was on the league and having a sustained tilt at the Premier League title the following season.
Of course it did not come to pass. It is arguable that such were the deficiencies of that Arsenal team (especially in defence) that they could never have sustained a serious league title challenge, even in a season where Leicester City ultimately topped the table. However, any hope of competing for the league ended with the start of Cazorla’s series of serious injuries. He missed half of the 2015/16 season before coming back near the end of it, and then he missed almost all of the 2016/17 season after limping off during an autumn Champions League clash against the Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets.
The Beginning of the End for Cazorla
Cazorla’s injury seemed relatively innocuous at the time, but it turned out that that was his last appearance for Arsenal. Eventually, his injury deteriorated to the point that he had to undergo emergency surgery, which in turn led to him acquiring a serious infection that almost cost him the use of his right leg. Finally, in the summer of 2018, when Wenger finally left the club, Cazorla also left, and with him, it seemed, went all semblance of passing ability in the Arsenal midfield.
Both Wenger and his successor, Unai Emery, have failed to replace Cazorla, which is astonishing given how important Cazorla had proved himself to be when he was playing regularly. Instead, in the absence of Cazorla or even a Cazorla-type player, Arsenal have been left with a number of midfield destroyers, such as Lucas Torreira and Mattéo Guendouzi, rather than having anyone who can actually pass the ball consistently well and thus knit the entire team’s play together. As well, Granit Xhaka is certainly no replacement for Cazorla. The Swiss international might hit the odd long ‘Hollywood’ pass but generally, he is not a good distributor of the ball, and certainly not in the class of the little Spaniard.
It is somewhat fitting, therefore, that Arsenal have finally sought to replace Cazorla by returning to Spain and acquiring Dani Ceballos on loan for the season from Real Madrid. Ceballos is certainly highly rated in Spain, not least by the national team’s manager, Luis Enrique, who has made him a regular in his Spanish side even while he has struggled to hold down a place in the Real Madrid first 11. That is a testament to his close control and exquisite passing.
Like Cazorla before him, and seemingly like every other attacking player in football nowadays, Ceballos ideally regards himself as a number ten, but he is unlikely to play there for Arsenal, not least because the club have failed to move on Mesut Ozil and so are virtually compelled to play their German playmaker. So, the hope is that Ceballos might drop a little deeper and form a central midfield partnership with one of the ‘destroyers’. Lucas Torreira has proved himself to be Arsenal’s best player in that position and as a fellow Spanish-speaker, he might be able to establish a useful relationship with Ceballos.
…but Only on Loan
However, there is an all-important catch to the signing of Ceballos and that, of course, is that he has only signed on loan for one season, without Arsenal acquiring an option to buy him at the end of his loan period. All the signs are that Real Madrid hope he will gain experience playing in the Premier League and then returns to the Spanish capital to replace one of the team’s veteran midfielders, Luka Modric or Toni Kroos.
As a result, however well Ceballos does at the Emirates and however much he might look like the Cazorla replacement that Arsenal so desperately need, Arsenal fans simply cannot get too excited about him. The last Spaniard acquired on loan, Denis Suarez, was a complete flop (and an expensive flop at that). Even if Ceballos does star for Arsenal and shows that he is the midfield playmaker that they so desperately need, there is very little chance that he will join the club long-term.
Seen in isolation, the Dani Ceballos loan signing might be regarded as a one-off gamble worth taking. In reality, however, it appears to be part of a depressing trend at Arsenal whereby even the longest-standing problems are never really addressed. The defence that was so horribly exposed last season looks even weaker now, with Laurent Koscielny training with the U23’s and the likes of Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin still struggling to regain fitness after long-term injuries. The one defensive signing that Arsenal appear to have completed, that of the 18-year-old French centre-back William Saliba, will do absolutely nothing to improve the team for the forthcoming season, as he is due to return to Saint Etienne on loan. That may have been a requirement of the deal to sign him, but it still means that Arsenal have not acquired even one of the two or three powerful, dominating centre-backs that they really need.
Similarly, the loan acquisition of Dani Ceballos, which is extremely unlikely to become a permanent acquisition, shows that Arsenal in general and Emery, in particular, are still not addressing the major problems in the team. Ceballos may do well for Arsenal, but almost certainly he will only do so for a year at most. Worryingly for Emery, this air of impermanence about Arsenal ultimately only suggests that the manager himself is not the successful, long-term replacement for Arsene Wenger that the club and its fans crave, but instead, like Dani Ceballos, a short-term measure that does little or nothing to address Arsenal’s long-term problems.