Dani Ceballos red card encapsulates an erratic Arsenal career as Mikel Arteta's hesitancy proves costly

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Dani Ceballos red card encapsulates an erratic Arsenal career as Mikel Arteta's hesitancy proves costly - GETTY IMAGES
Dani Ceballos red card encapsulates an erratic Arsenal career as Mikel Arteta's hesitancy proves costly - GETTY IMAGES

If Unai Emery acted too early in Thursday night’s Europa League semi-final, replacing a striker with a defensive midfielder at half-time, then Mikel Arteta surely acted too late. The Arsenal manager had warned Dani Ceballos to be careful in the second half against Villarreal, to not make any silly challenges after picking up an early yellow card, but the midfielder seemingly took no notice as he flew into foolish tackle after foolish tackle.

When it finally came in the 57th minute, the red card felt almost inevitable for Ceballos, despite his wide-eyed protestations. Such was his lack of control in midfield that he could have been sent off even earlier.

Ceballos was a loose cannon, and he clearly needed to be withdrawn from the game. Arteta agreed, he said afterwards, but he did not make the substitution in time.

“We talked at half-time to say that we had to be very careful,” said Arteta. “There was a tackle very early and I was going to take him off but, by the time that Gabi [Martinelli] was ready to come on, that action happened and he [Ceballos] was out.”

This red card will almost certainly prove to be the final significant action of the Spaniard’s Arsenal career. His second loan spell from Real Madrid is coming to an end and there have been too many of these errors, especially in the Europa League, for him to be worth buying on a permanent basis.

Even before this crucial game, Ceballos had been speaking to the Spanish media about his intention to return to his home country next season. “To be honest I like La Liga a lot more,” he told Onda Cero. “The Premier League is more complete but with my style, La Liga is much better for me.”

Few Arsenal supporters will be sorry to see Ceballos leave. Which is a shame, in many ways, because he has also produced some performances of the highest order over the past two seasons. He was crucial in Arsenal’s FA Cup triumph last year, for example, and has on rare occasions looked like a potentially world-class central midfielder.

Even if he had not been sent off on Thursday night, the return of fitness of Kieran Tierney would have forced Ceballos out of the team in the coming days anyway. Tierney will take up his usual left-back position in the second leg (provided he is deemed fit to start), allowing Granit Xhaka to once again play in the heart of Arsenal’s midfield.

To many fans, Ceballos has never been considered a proper Arsenal player, in part because of his status as a loanee. The counter-argument is that he is actually the ultimate embodiment of Arteta’s team this season: totally erratic, with moments of occasional brilliance interspersed with flashes of near-comical buffoonery.

Dani Ceballos red card encapsulates an erratic Arsenal career as Mikel Arteta's hesitancy proves costly - PA
Dani Ceballos red card encapsulates an erratic Arsenal career as Mikel Arteta's hesitancy proves costly - PA

Make no mistake: when Ceballos is good, he can be very good indeed. He may well go on to become a leading midfielder in Spain. But Arsenal need more reliable options next season, when the pressure will be on Arteta to oversee a massive improvement in consistency and results.

The feeling for much of this campaign has been that Arteta has too often been let down by his players, who have a remarkable knack for conceding silly goals out of nothing. With each passing week without clear progress, though, it will be increasingly difficult for Arteta to avoid the blame.

Ceballos did his manager no favours on Thursday night, but it was far from being the best night for Arteta either. Without a fully-fit Alexandre Lacazette or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, he played Emile Smith Rowe as a false nine. It did not work in the slightest, with Villarreal racing into a two-goal lead after dominating the first half.

The tactical tweak was a gamble that backfired for Arteta, and he cannot get it wrong again next week. Nicolas Pepe’s penalty ensured that Arsenal remain in the tie, and they did improve in the second half, but it will need to be a much more energetic performance if they are to overcome Emery, the master of the Europa League, at the Emirates.

“We have to go full gas from minute zero,” said Pablo Mari, the defender. They will do so without Ceballos, who looks set to return to Spain this summer as a symbol of Arsenal’s unpredictable season.