He is leaning back in his seat the first time the camera pans towards him. His legs are stretched and his arms are folded. He is arched forward the next time he appears on screen, elbows on knees and hands propping up chin. Still not on the pitch, but a little more attentive. The lesser-spotted Dani Ceballos sits on what has become his natural habitat: the Real Madrid bench.
Ceballos was an unused substitute as Madrid laboured to victory against Malaga at the Bernabeu. After the match, a journalist asked Zinedine Zidane why the 21-year-old midfielder has played so little
“He’s just arrived and he’s going to have minutes,” came the typically guarded response, “he isn’t getting them at the moment because there are other players but Dani will get minutes here, and he has done really well when he has played.”
Zidane’s answer was a replica of one he gave two months ago, ahead of the visit of Real Betis, Ceballos’ former club. The same question echoed forth from the back of the news conference. At that point in September, Ceballos had only played 31 minutes for Real Madrid, fewer than any other player in the squad, barring those who had been injured.
“Dani is going to play, for sure. I’m happy with him.”
Do you not see him as a starting player?
“No, no. It’s not that. […] It’s that there are other players who are very good.”
As the season rumbles towards December, Ceballos has spent a mere 167 minutes on the pitch in La Liga, spread across two starts and three substitute appearances. Only Borja Mayoral and Mateo Kovacic have played less. The latter is returning from injury and will presumably leapfrog Ceballos in the pecking order.
Ceballos has done well when selected, as Zidane acknowledged. He scored twice in his first start for the club — a victory in the undulating folds of the Basque Country, against Alaves. His performances for Spain Under-21s have induced sharp intakes of breath and raised eyebrows. A superb hat trick against Slovakia was particularly impressive. Yet regular opportunities have not been forthcoming.
Zidane’s well-versed response to questions about Ceballos’ marginal role invariably refers to “other players” in his position. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are the incumbents in question. The midfield pair have retained their positions in the team despite a string of turgid performances in La Liga. When Zidane rested the Croatian against Malaga, Lucas Vazquez took his place, rather than Ceballos.
Few would claim that Ceballos is ready to replace either Kroos or Modric on a consistent basis. Yet Real Madrid’s season has been afflicted by a lack of vivacity. The team has yearned for creative spark. Within that context, Zidane’s reluctance to use Ceballos as a means to refresh the midfield is puzzling. And the manager’s continued assertion that Ceballos’ absence is due to “other players” becomes difficult to sustain when those players are not playing well.
A clamour for Ceballos’ inclusion has rolled around the Bernabeu like a Mexican wave. Before the Derbi Madrileno against Atletico, 80 percent of respondents to a poll held by Diario AS wanted Ceballos to start at the Wanda Metropolitano. He didn’t play a single minute.
In a similar situation in the English second division, Ipswich Town supporters vociferously encouraged their manager Mick McCarthy to bring on substitute Bersant Celina in a match against Burton Albion. The notoriously sharp-tongued manager delivered a brusque response:
“There’s more chance of him not going on when they start telling me what to do. And yes, I am a belligerent f—.”
While it is amusing to consider Zidane adopting McCarthy’s lugubrious tone, it is highly unlikely that fan pressure will sway his decision-making in either direction.
Yet Ceballos has become the symbol of a perceived change in approach by Zidane. A defining feature of Madrid’s double-winning campaign in 2016-17 was the coach’s willingness to rotate the team and give opportunities to young players on the fringe of the squad. The so-called “B” team consistently repaid him. This season, those players on the margin of the squad have not played as much. Beyond Ceballos, chances have been scarce for Marcos Llorente, Borja Mayoral, and Theo Hernandez.
This is predominantly a consequence of circumstance. Madrid have spent the season squinting up at the back of Barcelona. There has been little margin for error, and as such, Zidane has opted for trusted, senior players. Ceballos, who represents flair and footwork, has been isolated by the familiarity of Modric and Kroos.
It is not an unfamiliar position for the Andalusian. Ceballos was cast aside during Gus Poyet’s brief spell in charge of Real Betis in 2016. The Uruguayan manager gave Ceballos just 202 minutes across 11 matches, citing the style of play at Betis as the main inhibitor of his progress.
Ceballos excelled when he established himself in the team after Poyet’s departure; a wiry streak of creative energy with a peroxide-blonde top. The turn of 2017 brought opportunity for Ceballos. The player and Madridistas alike will hope that 2018 ushers in similar change.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC’s Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93