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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.
Just before the season started, in the annual Managing Madrid roundtable, two staff members — Euan McTear and myself — predicted that Dani Ceballos would be the ‘unsung hero’ of the season, while two other members of the crew — Matt Wiltse, Lucas Navarrete — put Ceballos down as an important player as part of their ‘hot take’.
On one hand, based on what we saw from Ceballos in limited minutes off the bench in the Champions League last season, those predictions weren’t that wild. On the other hand, Ceballos’s future with Real Madrid was in limbo, and Real Madrid had four really good central midfielders ahead of him in the pecking order. (Plus: Casemiro hadn’t been sold yet, meaning it was conceivable Aurelien Tchouameni would get minutes as a central midfielder.)
But here was the case for Ceballos: You could throw him on in any game-state, any situation, and his profile makes sense. He can help you hold the ball to kill off a game, he can help you press, and he can provide you with vision and passes into the final third. He’s a creator, a work horse, and technically gifted. Plus he has enough energy to replace the sun — a trait that Carlo Ancelotti values highly.
The early prediction birthed life when Casemiro was sold and Tchouameni took over single pivot duties — freeing up a space for Ceballos. That, and the wholesale rotations Ancelotti has already implemented have accelerated the curve. Ceballos was already an important player on the back of the latter half of last season where he leapfrogged Isco. The path for him was there — he was already in Ancelotti’s good books.
On Sunday when Ceballos started against Mallorca, it confirmed more of the same assumptions we had of him: He brings a lot to the table on both ends of the field, and by the time the final whistle concluded, he stood out as one of the best players on the pitch. So I posed the question on the post-game podcast that night: When was the last time Ceballos put in a bad shift?
He has been really good since last season’s Champions League knockout games, and impressed the club enough that they didn’t shortlist him in the ‘see you later’ category that Isco and Bale found themselves in when their contracts ran out. The club would’ve sold, to be sure, if Betis could afford the Spanish midfielder or if another opportunity that Ceballos liked arose — but the club liked him enough to be open to him staying, and now, even with the depth that resides in midfield, it feels like Real Madrid have stumbled upon the version of Ceballos that he was supposed to be when he was younger, back when Real Madrid invested some 16m in him in 2017.
The Betis version of Ceballos was all about vision — playing passes no one else on the field could see. He had bounce, incisiveness. He struck fear. At Arsenal, he lost some of that verve playing in a deeper role. What he displayed against Mallorca was closer to the Betis version — the one the club hoped he’d pan into.
They are not quite the same player, but Ceballos’s performance against Mallorca reminded me of Isco in some way. As a creative force and controller, Isco at his peak was always good at passing and moving. Midfielders can’t be shy. Ceballos wasn’t and isn’t. Show, pass, move — with the purpose of always trying to move towards goal:
I cut that clip long so you could see an entire sequence of Ceballos’s ball progression and movement. He played like that throughout the game. Ceballos had 92 touches and four key passes on the day. He completed three tackles. His counter-pressing was impressive, and I don’t mind occasional sloppy touches if it’s followed up by determination to win the ball back immediately:
Ceballos reacts quickly even if he’s not involved in the initial loss of possession. This is quick thinking, and great awareness to sprint to the right spot to win back possession and keep the offense flowing swiftly:
Look at where Ceballos is at the top of that clip, and observe how quickly he reacts. He knows where Mallorca are going on the counter and where Fede Valverde might need cover. Mallorca’s attack is gone before it began, and Ceballos is readily pulling strings after he cleanly wins possession.
Counter-press, pass, move. The motor is perpetually on:
Ceballos has already made five appearances in Real Madrid’s opening six games. At the very least, he’s making Ancelotti’s decision-making more difficult, cementing himself as an important contributor in the rotation.