Dani Ceballos: Escape from Madrid to replace Mousa Dembélé for Spurs

I had become Francis Begbie.

Pint in hand, turning from under the projector screen to address the whole pub with a primal roar and a middle finger, celebrating Leigh Griffiths’ puncturing of England’s goal with a second audacious free kick in as many minutes.

Francis Begbie

Francis Begbie, played by Robert Carlyle, in ‘Trainspotting’

This was a back street Irish pub in Spain – packed with pool ball headed Essex lads on tour, Gammons grumpy from the heat, my pregnant London Polish sister-in-law resolutely reading a novel in the corner and my Northern Irish brother-in-law seeing a new, drunken and belligerent side to me.

Harry Kane, looking like Roy of the Rovers but with his face clumsily smudged by the illustrator’s wet thumb, put me back in my place by equalising for England moments later and probably saved me from off field retribution at the hands of Tel and Nige from Billericay.

That same summer, days later, a trudge across Barcelona fuelled by those small cans of Estrella – acceptable in lieu of water when it’s 90 degrees – to the Camp Nou. The deadzone of post season so no match to watch. Instead, on to the conveyor belt, along with noisy hordes of German school kids, through the club museum full of shiny trophies and dusty boots and the club shop full of adverts for whatever a Rakuten is. And then, the unexpected and memorable treat of a seat on the Barcelona bench and a moment to close my eyes and then open them again – staring out at the pitch in blissful calm as if I was now Pep Guardiola or Rinus Michels or Helenio Herrera or Johan Cruyff.


Johan Cruyff managing Barcelona

Near victory against the Auld Enemy, hotel rooftop swimming pools, deep fried honey soaked salt dusted aubergine slices, cable car trips swinging in the air down from Montjuic, independence protests, Willy Wonka levels ice cream from Rocambolesc, Picasso, Miro, Gaudi, Dali, Bombas spilling their spicy starchy meaty guts, sweltering heat, a pitchside view of one of football’s greatest theatres, cheap cold beer and late night music on the balcony, the fucking Sagrada Familia, flaky cumin and chicken empanadas, boxers sparring barefoot on the beach, Palm tree shaded flea markets in Gothic squares and yet the abiding memory from that summer is a footballer I knew little about and how he made me feel.

Dani Ceballos

A dull chain hotel bar in Girona. No other guests. No bar staff. A lone, disinterested receptionist foisting the strange check-in gift of a hotel branded chocolate chip cookie on bemused new visitors and, small mercies, a TV showing the European Under-21 Championship and Dani Ceballos shimmying his way between two Italian midfielders and into my life.


Dani Ceballos in action for Spain Under-21s, June 2017

Sure, it’s a team game and there are tactics and systems and stats and tribal allegiances but sometimes an individual just comes out of nowhere and instantly gets under your skin, makes your jaw slacker than a character from Clerks and leaves you, grinning stupidly, processing the near impossible made simple and the simple made sublime.

Ceballos, with his brave ball carrying from deep, fighting spirit, direct and positive vision and wonderful press resistant technique was my new love and all I wanted to do was watch. I devoured Real Betis matches from the previous two seasons and old Spanish under-19 and under-21 matches before Ceballos made his big move, last July, to Real Madrid. Since then there have been fewer opportunities to watch him as the young Spaniard queues behind Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Isco, Mateo Kovacic and Marco Asensio for a place in a match-day squad let alone the starting eleven for Los Blancos.


In fact, Zinedine Zidance has seen fit to use him in La Liga for only 392 minutes this season whereas he played almost 4500 minutes for Real Betis in 2015/16 and 2016/17 combined. Ceballos has a prohibitively high transfer release fee in the hundreds of millions of Euros but a loan move, for this coming season, to develop for a fuller role in Madrid – particularly as Modric’s career nears its end – could be ideal. Let’s take a look at where he could go.

Where to next?

Least likely:

Barcelona – Barça were heavily linked with the player before he joined Real Madrid so, given Andres Iniesta has now departed for Japan, could they make an audacious bid  to use Ceballos until Arthur joins from Gremio in 2019?

AC Milan – They finished 2017/18 over 30 points behind champions Juventus so serious reinforcements are required but with the club potentially facing Financial Fair Play sanctions and a dire need to restructure financially they may be limited to loan deals, at best, for the season ahead.

Strong possibility:

Real Betis – A romantic, temporary, return to hipster club of choice Los Verdiblancos might make sense for all parties. Ceballos responded to Betis manager Quique Setién’s questioning of his emotional state at Real Madrid by affirming his happiness in January 2018 but rumours are intensifying in Spain that this could happen and may even be a permanent transfer.


Dani Ceballos happy

Liverpool – Ceballos could be considered as combining the best qualities of Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, plus more, in one package. Jurgen Klopp might be well placed to have a word after Saturday’s Champions League final and a midfield of  Ceballos and Naby Keita with a dedicated holding midfielder behind is a frightening prospect.

Napoli – New manager Carlo Ancelotti could use his Real Madrid connections to attempt to bring Ceballos to the Stadio San Paolo. Midfield reinforcements seem likely to be needed given the speculation surrounding Marek Hamsik and Jorghino and just imagine Ceballos linking up with Lorenzo Insigne from a left of centre midfield slot.

PSG – Thomas Tuchel could create a midfield trio that have something to prove, after being left out of their nation’s World Cup squad or not qualifying for the tournament at all, by combining Ceballos with Adrien Rabiot and Marco Verratti.

Arsenal – Could be an on-field lieutenant for compatriot Unai Emery and has technique and vision Gunners fans would find reminiscent of Santi Cazorla.

Bayern Munich – Already have a successful loan connection with Los Merengues in James Rodriguez and may feel that their midfield needs to add creativity to compensate for the ageing of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery ahead of it.

Best fit:

Tottenham Hotspur – Mousa Dembélé is somewhat of a footballing unicorn – with a unique skillset – but Dani Ceballos does have some similarities. Both players are press resistant, often turning circles with the ball to work their way out of trouble and then carrying the ball over distance up the pitch. Dembélé has the more impressive physique but Ceballos is a tenacious fighter. The Spurs midfielder turns 31 this summer and Ceballos could be phased in as a replacement this season before an attempt is made to make the move permanent in 2019. The ‘persona comparison’ below, provided by Football Whispers, compares Ceballos and Dembélé stylistically by using data from the 2017/18 season.

Ceballos Dembele Comparison

Comparison of the playing styles of Dani Ceballos and Mousa Dembélé 

We can see that both are heavily involved in build up passing, a similar percentage of their time is spent dribbling but this season Ceballos has shot more while Dembélé has been involved in more defensive actions as a percentage of his play.

In the 2016/17 season Ceballos made 1.50 key passes every 90 minutes whereas Dembélé made just 0.86 every 90 minutes this season. This season, at Real Madrid, Ceballos has shown he can post similar ball retention numbers to Dembélé – both completing over 92% of passes and having significantly less than one instance of poor ball control per match. Ceballos attempted 4.6 dribbles every 90 minutes with a success rate of 67% in 2016/17 for Real Betis whereas Dembélé attempted 3.9 dribble every 90 minutes with a success rate of 82% for Spurs in 2017/18 so some improvement is required in this area for the Spaniard to be on the same level but at the age of 21 there is plenty of time for development and Mauricio Pochettino has certainly shown some aptitude for and interest in improving young players. The other key area to improve, in order to be a fit for Spurs in place of Dembélé is to be able to destroy attacks as the below, on the 2016/17 season, from Ted Knutson of Statsbomb shows.

Dembele Spurs 2016 2017Ceballos Statsbomb 2016 2017

It has to be hoped that, whether at Real Madrid or one of the possible destinations outlined above, this wonderful player is able to play a lot more in the coming 2018/19 season. Let me know at @owenjamesbrown if you agree or disagree with me that Spurs, to replace Mousa Dembélé, would be a fitting destination.

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