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The Dani Ceballos Era Begins — It’s Uncertain As It Is Exciting

The long-awaited Ceballos signing has arrived. Now what? A look at his story, the chip on his shoulder, and the players he’ll be competing with.

Germany v Spain - 2017 UEFA European Under-21 Championship Final Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.

One month ago, Marcos Llorente posted a premonition on his Instagram page. Spain’s U21 team had just performed a second-half blitz against a promising Portugal side, and straight from the dressing room in Gdynia, Llorente’s Instagram post quickly made the rounds online. Himself, two other Real Madrid players, and Dani Ceballos lit up the camera.

It was Marcos Llorente, anchor supreme, Jesus Vallejo, man-of-the-match, Marco Asensio, team superstar, and finally Dani Ceballos — the kid with a chip on his shoulder the size of a boulder. Those four, alongside Saul Niguez — former bully victim at Real Madrid Castilla — were Spain’s vertebrae. Four of those five linchpins are now Real Madrid players, with the fifth, Saul, a former Castilla product — now happy to play for Atletico in a forlorn attempt to spread some parity.

Of the Spanish vertebrae, Ceballos was donned the most valuable, winning the tournament’s best player award. That was debatable, by the way, given Saul was the tournament’s top scorer and highly influential to the team’s flow. It doesn’t matter -- that young Spanish team was above any individual player. They were, on paper, talented to a remote level; but failed to capitalize on the hype after Germany started to exploit some tactical pits in Celades’ scheme which were masked in previous games by individual brilliance and weaker opposition.

“I have told the lads of my age in the dressing room we should keep our heads held high, we have a second opportunity and I'm sure we can take advantage [in 2019].” Ceballos said after receiving the consolation award. “It's a bittersweet feeling, I'm pleased to be the best player but right now I'd swap the trophy to be a [European] champion."

Leading up to the final, Spain were unnerved early in every single game but one — the semi-final game against Italy being the exception. Teams pressed high for the first 15 minutes, rendering the full-backs, Bellerin and Gaya / Jony, with little options to ping out outlet passes. Spain grew into the game and responded every time though. Opposing teams couldn’t sustain their press, and brainiacs Llorente and Saul, surrounded with technical players who are comfortable in tight spaces, eventually trumped whatever was thrown at them. As the games wore on, Spain’s tenacity just wore teams down into submission.

"The key thing is the team are a unit, we stick together and if a centre-forward moves up to press the ball then the wingers, the midfielders, the defenders do too,” Jorge Mere, Vallejo’s central defender partner said. “That's how it works and if we manage to win the ball, we know we can catch our opponents because we're so quick on the transition."

Germany paralyzed them in the first half the way no other team could actually sustain. Retaining possession became more laborious, and Germany’s transitional defense was enough to compensate for moments where their lines broke. Moments of individual flair from Spain were neutralized. German head coach Stefan Kuntz said after the game that his players ‘handled one-on-ones outstandingly’.

None of that was enough to dampen the hype of these crop of players. Celades may have got it wrong, but Spain wins in all this for years to come. This tournament has less to do with trophies and more to do with grooming and graduating.

It also tells us about character.

Dani Ceballos has been a polarizing figure in the past year or so — mostly for things he’s done as a teenager. Old tweets were dug up taking shots at Pique, Catalans, Ronaldo, and Mourinho. We are not going to unearth them. People mature, people change. The teenage phase infiltrates all of humanity. No one is exempt from making mistakes. What Ceballos has given us in the past few months has enlightened us more than it has rustled our feathers.

Earlier this past season, Betis head coach Gus Poyet — sacked in November — put the ageless Ruben Castro, and more controversially, the talented Dani Ceballos, on the bench. It was hoped that Ceballos would have a fire lit in his belly. The experiment didn’t last long and was taken to extremes. Ceballos did not start when Real Betis were annihilated 1-5 at home to Real Madrid. Poyet was sacked afterwards, and new coach Victor Sanchez reinstated Ceballos into the team.

The Poyet experiment was well-intentioned, just executed horribly. He actually was a huge fan of Ceballos’ game, and was an advocate of keeping him at Betis for years to come. Victor Sanchez took a more risk-free approach by giving Ceballos as much playing time as he needed to develop.

That was the right call. Betis slowly turned their season around — not in an earth-shattering way, but they did climb to a more respectable status. Two months after Sanchez took over, Dani Ceballos rose to the occasion in a high profile match against Barcelona. From a deep-lying position, Ceballos slung vertical passes leading to goal-scoring opportunities, mazed through multiple defenders like an eel, and was quick to retain possession like an anchor would. He is not an anchor by any means, but that game was a testament to his box-to-box nature. He’s tireless, he’s combative, he wants to put the team on his back and he doesn’t care much for the stakes you pin against him.

His box-to-box tendencies and chip on his shoulder make him a versatile, ticking upper-cut who you want leading you into hostile warfare. Ceballos won’t let you down when it comes to effort. He won’t stroll around the pitch. Track his movement, and you’ll see a player constantly recalibrating his surroundings in order to help his teammates. He can hurt you from deep, both as a playmaker and repelling shield — but also higher up the pitch, deceiving defenders with shoulder feints and incisive vision.

"Dani is a player with a lot of quality who makes everything easier for his team-mates,” Ruben Pardo, Dani’s teammate at Real Betis said. “He always gives you the right pass so you can move the ball more comfortably. He makes everything simpler."

Ceballos’ footballing IQ and unique talent with the ball at his feet which sees him read the game in a way few others can, is unquestioned. He’s lauded. One thing that doesn’t get talked about enough are his intangibles: he believes he’s the best player on the field at all times, feels slighted when he’s not a de facto starter, and is completely fearless. Opposing teams hate playing against him. Against Barcelona, he visibly unnerved players trying to track him into the ground. He would swing-and-sway with the ball at his feet, almost taunting them. He’d either get fouled, or provoke his opponent before releasing the pass. "He is really talented, has impressive confidence and is capable of getting out of situations that would be impossible for a normal footballer,” Victor Sanchez said. “He has an abnormal ability to provide assists and has brilliant vision. The best thing is that he has the capacity to get even better."

Ceballos has come a long way since entering Sevilla’s youth system at the age of eight. Poor Sevilla decided to cut him from their ranks when he was just 13 due to his bronchitis. They will rue it. Shortly after, a personal trainer helped Ceballos overcome his physical condition, and In 2011, cross-town enemies Real Betis snatched him up. From there, it took just four games with their B side to convince them that Ceballos needs to be promoted to the first team.

He worked his soul into the ground to get noticed, which is a trait that shouldn’t go unnoticed in itself. Even at a large club like Real Betis, recognition was hard to come by. Under Poyet, Ceballos started just one game, and three times he sat on the bench without making an appearance. He responded promptly under Victor Sanchez by setting the league on fire before being appointed the best player in this summer’s U21 Euro tournament.

Even then, it took one whole game for Albert Celades to realize Ceballos shouldn’t be a bench player in the Euros. He opted to start Denis Suarez in Spain’s opener against Macedonia. Spain were ahead at half, but mostly due to individual brilliance from Asensio and Saul. The tempo was wonky, and the build-up from the back was onerous. Ceballos’s introduction for Suarez in the second half changed everything. Spain dominated possession, retained the ball when they wanted, and raided Macedonia mercilessly.

David Cartlidge of BeIn sports, who was covering Spain in Poland and was around the team for the whole tournament, reported that Ceballos was baffled that Suarez had started over him. Ceballos was right to be. His response on the pitch is exactly why his self-confidence is conducive to the team’s run.

At Real Madrid, he will carry that same chip on his shoulder. Only, his playing time becomes even more uncertain. Denis Suarez, Carlos Soler, and players in that mould, suddenly turn into Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, and Isco. He’ll be hanging with the world’s most elite players. How will he cope? How will Zidane juggle the rotations?

Former Real Madrid and Spanish National Team head coach Vicente Del Bosque thinks Dani will cope just fine amid the high-profile atmosphere: "Dani Ceballos is capable of playing for Real Madrid and has nothing to envy about the players at the club."

Del Bosque’s not wrong, but he’s also not the one picking the team sheet. There is a consensus that purchasing Ceballos was the right move — you’re adding a generational talent into a galaxy of blinding stars, filled with a group of other generational up-and-coming talents. It’s a young team stockpiled, primed, and mapped out for both short-term and long-term success. Ceballos is joining a team that, despite winning back-to-back European titles, is only starting it’s dynastic journey.

Even Del Bosque, who managed his own galacticos, never dreamed of having a team this deep nor dreamed of shuffling a problem quite like this. While the signing of Ceballos itself is eulogized, there are still no clear answers about how playing time will unfold. Pointing to Zidane’s knack of rotations as ‘the’ solution is a start, but that didn’t stop a player like James Rodriguez from missing the squad for the Champions League Final. Zidane is really good at managing personalities, earning respect, and instilling happiness and fire — but his dexterity in squad shuffling doesn’t guarantee that every midfielder in the squad will beam with happiness when they go to bed at night after missing a string of games,

To reiterate, Dani Ceballos is really good, and he’s far from his peak. This is a really sound signing from Real Madrid. From their point of view, they take a (financially) gamble-free approach by signing a player who would’ve otherwise upgraded either Atletico of Barcelona, and would’ve been a thorn in their side for years. But the rotations this season will be a challenge. Had Real Madrid loaned him back out to Betis for a year to buy time and evaluate Modric’s prime-window or Kovacic’s development for another season would’ve made sense. That was always going to be complicated though, given that other big clubs in Spain could have offered him a starting role almost immediately. Real Betis have had a great off-season transfer window to strengthen their team, but even that hasn’t been enough to coax Dani into one more hoorah before sending him off for good.

Dani Ceballos is a central midfielder, typically feeding in front of the anchor while supporting the attack. This is not a light position in Real Madrid’s scheme. Parallels have been drawn with Mateo Kovacic, who, similarly, will go to war and shed his blood for the team. He’ll gorge on opposing midfielders who dare him to run into space, and be there as a stop-gap to support the mainstay — in this case either Casemiro or Llorente.

Dig deeper. Kovacic won’t be the only player treading water with Ceballos’ arrival. Fans argue to the death over whether Isco or Bale should start next season, but few have grappled with the idea that Isco will have to fend off Ceballos too in a deeper role, or, even as a direct replacement as a more advanced gunslinger. From Ceballos himself: "I identify a lot with Andrés Iniesta and with Isco, players that play behind the striker and have absolute freedom to get the ball and move the team,"

Ultimately, Zidane is already mapping out how to cross multiple bridges when they arrive. No team in Europe has these good problems. Nevertheless, there are legitimate questions that need to be answered, and the question of rotations will probably be less-straightforward than some fans and their rose-coloured glasses anticipate them to be.

This summer in Poland, Marcos Llorente took Jesus Vallejo and Marco Asensio aside. The three of them came up with a plan to kidnap Ceballos, hypnotize him, collectively pump their blood into a jar, and give him a chock-full dose of Madridismo. It worked. Ceballos, drunk full of blood, put his thumb in the air and embraced his future — giving birth to a photo we’ll look back on in ten years and say ‘wow, so that was the beginning of this magical era’.

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