Dani Ceballos as an aesthetic experience
Dani Ceballos couldn’t believe his luck. After Zinedine Zidane won his third Champions League in a row, it looked like he was set to stay at Real Madrid indefinitely and build upon his legacy. But then he announced a press conference and told the world he was leaving his post with immediate effect.
“If Zidane had stayed, I would have looked for an exit,” he said after Zidane was gone from Real Madrid and out of hearing distance. It didn’t really matter who came in to replace him, whoever it was would be an improvement on the French manager, who once had to apologise after bringing Ceballos on for three seconds at the end of a Leganés game.
Life under Julen Lopetegui had started well for Ceballos. He was playing around with different formations so he could accommodate Luka Modric and the young Spaniard in his plans, knowing that between them they could dominate any game and unlock even the most air-tight defences. It didn’t really work but the intent was there and while that intent meant Toni Kroos got sent back to defensive midfielder, a role he later admitted he didn’t like, you wonder what might have been had Lopetegui remained employed.
No sooner had Zidane left than he was being called back by Florentino Perez to return and fix the club. He has been given carte blanche this summer to build Real Madrid into contenders again. And that means Ceballos being sold.
Real Madrid's summer transfers make some sense
Many of the moves make sense or at least you could argue that they do. For example, Marcos Llorente is a very good footballer but he hasn’t proven it for long enough at Real Madrid to ever win a battle with Casemiro over playing time. The Brazilian won three Champions Leagues with Zidane and has the manager’s trust. Keylor Navas, who has Zidane’s backing too, has a goalkeeping galactico under contract ahead of him in Thibaut Courtois and it is one of the few battles Zidane has lost when it comes to structuring the team how he sees fit next year.
The Gareth Bale situation has gone too far. Too much animosity has grown between the pair with Jonathan Barnett, his agent, second-guessing Zidane’s decision-making process and with Bale himself suggesting he would have to leave if Zidane stayed on before being given a second lease on life last season, which he never really capitalised on.
But Dani Ceballos is a lamentable one. And that has never been more evident than it is at the Euro under-21 tournament in Italy. The little firecracker has infuriated Italy, Belgium and Poland with his skills and inventiveness in all three games. His driving runs from deep are matched only by his willingness to shoulder the load as the captain and creative muse of the team. With Fabian Ruiz and himself, both built at Real Betis, you wonder are they the most complete midfield pairing you could possibly need. And when you consider Rodri stayed at home but was eligible, you figure it’s probably for the best in the interest of fairness. But with Ceballos on the field, Spain always have an edge.
A pleasure to watch Ceballos
De La Fuente says it’s a pleasure to watch him train and play. He is wiry, technically excellent and brave; pure football from the street where optics are as important as end product but where pull-backs, flicks and turns are also a means to an end. He has scored two goals so far, both as outrageously good as they were important for his side as the world wakes up to his brilliance.
Ceballos causes panic in opposition defences and creates space where there seemingly is none. He doesn’t go to ground easily because he is constantly close to it. Like a surfer gliding under the lip of a wave, rubbing his fingers against the water just before it breaks, Ceballos can slalom his way through all kinds of traffic and never look in danger of losing the ball.
Real Madrid are more than likely going to install a buy-back clause on any deal they do for Ceballos but we are seeing what he is truly worth when given the keys to a midfield and team. As the central point of Spain’s midfield, he floats around the penalty area, drifts out to the left, and deep and into the spaces where he can cause maximum harm to a defence’s balance.
Real Madrid said they won't even entertain offers below €50 million but at just 22, the buying club will be getting a bargain as much for his practical input as the aesthetic side of his game. With the ball at his feet, anything is possible, and results follow as a result of that unpredictability.
He probably never should have said what he did when Zidane left but that’s how he felt and while it makes his future at Real Madrid likely very short, it gives him a chance to go to a club that trusts him and to play for a manager that knows what he can do (Pochettino could turn him into a Ballon d'Or candidate). And both he and those watching should feel very happy about that. Because watching Dani Ceballos in full flight is an experience that is as satisfying to watch as he is ruthless in his pursuit of creating and converting chances.