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A tale of two loanees: Why has it worked for Martin Odegaard at Arsenal but not Dani Ceballos?

By Allan Riley

(All numbers via FBREF)

After some initial bedding in time at Arsenal, Martin Odegaard has come into his own at the Emirates. After a string of superb performances, and crucial goals against Olympiacos and them lot, more and more people have come around to the Real Madrid loanee- capped off by an inspired performance against West Ham last weekend.

Odegaard’s time at Arsenal has so far gone better than fellow Madridista Dani Ceballos, with the Spaniard not being given a second thought by Arsenal fans after a below par second season, culminating in him being at fault for four of the five goals Arsenal have conceded in the Europa League knockout stages this season.

Ceballos ended the 19/20 season well, with Mikel Arteta’s switch to a 3-4-3 formation seemingly getting the best out of the Spaniard, in a pivot alongside Granit Xhaka. Ceballos was a standout performer against Norwich and Wolves and was instrumental in the Gunners’ FA Cup run.

Fast forward to March 2021, and Ceballos has been at fault for both goals against Olympiacos, as well as one in the second leg against Benfica. His general performance levels have dipped, which has subsequently led to his omission from most games. The arrival of Thomas Partey meant that the under-21 Euros Player of the Tournament dropped to the bench, now playing a bit-part role this campaign.

According to reports, Arsenal are fighting tooth and nail to keep Odegaard at the club, but there have been very few rumours about his Spanish teammate. Why?

The seemingly obvious answer is that Odegaard is a player who’s more suited to Premier League football. The Norweigan is someone who can cut it in the league physically and is clearly one of the leaders on the pitch, despite his young age. Conversely, Ceballos is not someone who’s built for the rough and tumble nature of the Premier League. He gets spun far too often and doesn’t offer that physical presence required. This has often led to Arsenal fans comparing him to fidget spinners online.

If you look at the comparison at a micro level, Odegaard's profile fits much better into Arteta’s system than Ceballos does. The Norweigan can operate as both an attacking midfielder or as a number eight. Given Arteta’s desire to move to a 4-3-3 formation in the near future, Odgeaard (should he stay) would fit in brilliantly to a system where he operates as a hybrid number eight/ten, similar to the system Pep Guardiola has implemented at Manchester City.

Ceballos, meanwhile, just doesn’t really fit anywhere in any system that isn't in a double pivot. Supposed to be the creative midfielder in Arteta’s 3-4-3, the Spaniard’s numbers across his stay at the N5 simply do not back this hypothesis. Ceballos puts up 2.3 shot-creating actions, 0.16 goal creating actions, 5.1 passes into the final third and 4.26 progressive passes per 90. His 0.17 expected assists per 90 is similar to Houssem Aouar, who funnily enough, has been hailed as the man to fix Arsenal’s creative struggles (just don’t mention that part to WLYA editor, Alfie).

If we look at Odegaard’s statistics in the aforementioned metrics, his 0.15 xA per 90 is slightly lower than Ceballos’ and Ceballos beats Odegaard in passes into the final third and progressive passes. However, the Norweigian beats the Spaniard in goal-creating actions (0.38 per 90), shot-creating actions (4.75). If we’re getting REAL technical, Odegaard also provided all three pre-assists in the West Ham game (but that statistic is irrelevant unless you’re a Mesut Ozil stan), as well as 17 chances created in just 767 minutes of football.

That means he tops the Arsenal team for chances created per 90. Odegaard is also instrumental in the way Arsenal press. He is the trigger, similar to what Roberto Firmino is at Liverpool, and is great at hold-up play. His energy speaks volumes and it permeates throughout the team. This, coupled with the fact that he’s one of the leaders on the pitch, means that he does so much more off the ball. Odegaard also has stepped up when needed, scoring against Tottenham and Olympiacos, as well as being pivotal in the West Ham comeback.

Martin Odegaard and Dani Ceballos have had two wildly different times at Arsenal. One is revered by the fans and the other is seen as just a mild upgrade on Denis Suarez, primarily due to the physical nature of the league and the way Arteta’s system works. While a permanent return for Odegaard could be on the cards, if there’s one lesson learnt from the Ceballos saga, it’s that Gooners shouldn’t get too attached to loanees.

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