The chant ringing around the stadium was familiar, as was the shuffle of the feet that instigated it, the same close control and manipulation of the ball that captivated the Emirates crowd not long ago. However, when Dani Ceballos ran to the corner flag to celebrate setting up the second goal, the relief on his face was of someone determined to make his own mark at the club. “The truth is that for me it has been one of the most special days of my life,” he said after the 2-1 win over Burnley. “I think that starting at home by winning and with this passion at the end of the match, I think it will be hard to forget this day for me. I really want this year to truly demonstrate the football that I have inside. I have a lot of enthusiasm for this season & give a lot of joy to these people.”
For Ceballos, the chance to forge his own name has been a long time coming. He moved to Real Madrid in 2017 after impressing in the European Under-21 Championship and this summer, two years later, as one of the over-age players, he did the same, winning the Player of the Tournament, yet he still found himself surplus to requirements at the Spanish giants. Arsenal threw him a lifeline, and on his home debut he duly delivered, producing a performance that evoked memories of one former fan favourite, Santi Cazorla.
Ceballos dazzled the home crowd with his quick feet, evading challenges with ease or drawing fouls when his opponents didn’t have the smarts anymore to keep up. He also showcased what has become his signature move, a sidestep away from the defender and then looking to bend a shot into the far corner. He did this with two attempts in the game but alas, he was unable to cap off a dream debut with a goal. In the end, he would have to make do with two assists, the first coming from a corner-kick, which he took in the absence of Granit Xhaka, and the second, when he seized on a loose ball (that he initially gave away himself), displaying his tenacious side, and then playing in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
From the start, Ceballos was given the freedom to move as he pleased. He began in the no.10 role but frequently, as is his predilection, he dropped back into midfield to pick up possession. It’s clear that he’s not natural as a no.10, whilst even as a no.8 he probably prefers to play on the left side of the 4-3-3 rather than in a double pivot. As such, Unai Emery granted him this freedom to move where he feels most comfortable, and that often meant dropping into the no.8 position and swapping with Joe Willock.“With him, it’s for us to use his qualities in the best position in our team with our ideas,” said Emery after the game. “I spoke with him – before coming here – to play like an eight and a 10. Today he started like a 10, but a lot of times he was changing with Willock into the eight position, where he can feel better on the pitch.”
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This led to a rather tight midfield three, and if it worked it was because of the individual qualities of the three central players, and a sort of improvised understanding of each other. Ceballos would drop deep, and at times, that would see all three bunched in the same area. Willock showed more initiative than Matteo Guendouzi to push into the zone vacated by Ceballos but generally, they would only do it once they combined with each other to put them into that position. As such, most of Arsenal’s early play was deep in their own half.
Of course, this was partly also forced by Burnley’s high pressing, but for the most part the midfielders seemed to be guided by habit. It caused a bit of a disconnect between the back and the front three which Emery’s rectified somewhat in the second-half by bringing on Nicolas Pepe for the ineffective Reiss Nelson. The change opened up the pitch a bit more and allowed the likes of Ceballos and Willock to move into pockets, whilst the right-hand side of the pitch was now finally an option to progress the – crucially unlocking Aubameyang.
Because now, playing from the left in the second-half, Aubameyang was less worried about hugging the touchline – in any case it was not his brief entirely but with Nelson also moving inside in the first-half, it was a struggle to get the forward into play enough. With Pepe now stretching the pitch and helping Arsenal funnel more of their attacks down the right, Aubameyang was able to move more freely into the centre-forward position. When he scored his goal, it was a culmination of those things coming together; Ceballos moving into the left half-space, towards his favoured side and the area Aubameyang was wont to vacate, and the striker now getting close to Lacazette. Pepe on the other side seemed to be a further distraction that Burnley weren’t able to cope with. Sean Dyche said after the game: “I’m pleased with the performance though, particularly in the first half when we were very good. We mixed up our play and our pressing lines were very good. We made it very difficult for them to play out and numerous times we turned the ball over.
“In the second half they got more of a foothold in the game, but I always think putting £70m players on probably helps!”
For Emery, it’s still not clear what will be his preferred balance given the forward options he has at his disposal. What we do know, however, is that it’ll be packaged in the 4-2-3-1, although he did use a 3-4-1-2 for the last twenty minutes against Burnley.
The manager evidently prefers this set up as a base to attack, using the double-pivot’s positioning to help circulate the ball from side-to-side and progressing down the flanks. The variation that he used against Burnley – allowing Ceballos to join the two sitting midfielders – is maybe a sign of how he might tinker the team’s build up so that it is better at drawing and evading the opponent’s press, and then, with the extra space it creates behind, to play in the front three. Certainly, to find the right balance, it’s hard to see Emery making large, overarching tweaks to his philosophy, but rather, it will probably be subtle changes that allow the individuals to flourish, that make all the difference.