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Is Dani Ceballos another Arsenal loan bust?

The young Spaniard might cut his Arsenal loan short.

AFC Bournemouth v Arsenal FC - FA Cup Fourth Round
We’ll always have Burnley.
Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Denis Suárez. Kim Källström. Júlio Baptista. Oh, what could have been. Arsenal have not had much luck with loans recently, and Dani Ceballos may soon join that list of guys who didn’t work out. According to The Athletic (paywalled), the Spaniard wants more playing time, and if he can’t get it at Arsenal, wants to return to Spain to be loaned out somewhere he can, with Valencia and Real Betis the likeliest destinations. It’s disappointing for everybody involved — Arsenal, Ceballos, and supporters.

In a way, a loan move has the upside of a transfer buy without the usual risk. Sure, loans aren’t free and if the guy is a star you don’t get to keep him, but you get at least half a season from a player who presumably improves your squad without having to worry about splashing the cash for a guy who doesn’t work out. If it’s not a fit or he doesn’t cut it, he goes back to his parent club. If he plays well, great. Win-win, right?

Apparently not, at least if you’re Arsenal. Last season, Denis Suárez managed only five fit Finalizeweeks at the club and played a mere 94 minutes before picking up a groin injury and being shut down for the remainder of the season. In 2014, the Arsenal medical team found that Kim Källström had suffered a back injury playing beach football days before his transfer. He missed three weeks, never really found his footing at the club, and only made four appearances for the Gunners. Júlio Baptista had a slightly more successful loan spell than the other two, but when the bar is so low that 3 goals in 24 Premier League appearances clears it...yikes.

Dani Ceballos’ time at Arsenal looks to be playing out in much the same way, that is, not well. It’s even more disappointing because of what could have been. He dazzled in his first start, bamboozling Burnley defenders, threading passes, and picking up two assists in an 83-minute home debut that had Gooners giddy. Arsenal had lucked out. They were going to get a season of magic from a talented, young playmaker that was stuck behind established stars at Real Madrid and not properly rated by Zinedine Zidane. Ceballos was going to replace the out-of-favor Mesut Özil, and the team wasn’t going to miss a beat.

But in 15 appearances before tearing a muscle bundle against Vitória S.C. in November, he didn’t recapture that dominant level. He had some good games and some not-so-good games. He was a solid, mostly unspectacular player. The injury kept him out 54 days and 11 matches, and he “missed” an additional 28 days and 5 matches as a “Did Not Play - Coach’s Decision” after returning to training at the end of December. His 21-minute, substitute cameo against Bournemouth in the FA Cup was his first appearance under Mikel Arteta.

It’s a tough spot for both manager and player. Arteta did not engineer the loan move; Unai Emery did. According to The Athletic, Ceballos joined Arsenal in large part because Emery convinced him that he’d play a big part in the team’s setup. But when Unai Emery was shown the door, the promised playing time went with him. Arteta recently commented that Ceballos “needs to get back to fitness and fight for his place,” making it clear he doesn’t rate the midfielder as highly as Emery did. Looking at it from Ceballos’ perspective, it’s reasonable to want playing time. He’s 23-years old, trying to develop his game, and hoping to keep alive an outside shot at making the Spanish National Team for Euro 2020.

“Sources close to the player” told The Athletic that Arteta has not been clear enough with him about his place in the team and what he can do to improve his standing and earn playing time. But if he stays, what place does he and should he have in the squad?

Mikel Arteta is installing a new system at Arsenal, presumably the system he is going to play next season. He has a squad full of players that will be with the team come August, and Dani Ceballos who almost certainly will not be. There has been no talk from Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal about turning the loan into a full transfer. Arteta has young players like Joe Willock who he needs to evaluate, who plays basically the same position as Ceballos, who needs playing time to learn and develop, and again, will be with the club next season.

Ceballos might be a better player than Willock is right now. But how much better is he? Is it enough to make a meaningful difference on the pitch? Enough justify developing a non-Arsenal player? I’m not sure.

The Gunners still have things they can accomplish this season — winning the Europa League, winning the FA Cup, and finishing in a Europa League place in the league. But the key words are “for next year” — I think there is a tacit understanding in North London that setting up the squad for success next year is the best thing that can come out of this season.

I’m not advocating for Ceballos to never see the pitch. He absolutely could help Arsenal win games if he stays. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he left. I don’t see him becoming a regular at Arsenal in the second half of the season, especially when Mikel Arteta isn’t seeing (or Ceballos isn’t showing) what he needs to in training. And since regular playing time is what he wants, the best move for everyone is probably for him to return to Spain.

But these things have a habit of working out in unexpected ways, so introducing your Arsenal player of the second half of the season, Dani Ceballos. I’d be fine with him staying or with him leaving. The only thing that’s certain is we’ll have a resolution by the time the transfer window closes on Friday night.