Totalvoetbal is back in vogue! After the international football scene spent decades tilting further and further towards the specialist end of the spectrum — narrowing down the roles and duties specific players had in specific systems to a greater and greater degree — the do-it-all footballer is back on the rise. Led by managers such as Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Liverpool’s own Jürgen Klopp, players are now expected to handle a number of tasks over multiple positions.
In Klopp’s case, the preference for box-to-box midfielders has been clear since he first arrived at Anfield. Instead of specialised destroyers and creators, everybody is a ball-winner and everybody is a playmaker, slotting into increasingly varying formations as squad health and opposition dictates. The natural culmination of this mentality is the signing of RB Leipzig’s Naby Keïta, arguably the most do-it-all midfielder to currently do it all, consistently topping charts of tackles, interceptions, dribbles, and ball progressions in one fell swoop.
Meanwhile, over in Spain, Luka Modric is the quintessential two-way midfielder, but entering his 33rd year, one that is beginning to show signs of slowing down. As such, Real Madrid have begun the search for the Croatian’s natural successor, and last summer, they picked up Real Betis’ Dani Ceballos for €16.5m. Six months later, the 21-year old has found out he was never favoured by manager Zinedine Zidane, with Florentino Perez the main driver behind his signing, and is now looking for an exit.
According to Diario Gol, takers are plentiful, with Roma, Inter Milan, and Arsenal all monitoring the situation alongside Liverpool, although the Real Madrid hierarchy are reportedly hesitant to allow anything beyond a loan deal in the upcoming transfer window.
A bit of a midfielder by elimination, Ceballos is an odd duck, starting out as a more traditional playmaker, moving back into midfield due to lack of production, and making that transition stick by virtue of sheer tenacity and ferociousness. At a sinewy 5’10”, the Sevilla youth product throws himself into challenges with furious abandon, before progressing the ball forward by pass, run, or trademark back-heeled flick. A massive engine in a tiny frame allows Ceballos to cover every blade of grass with this high intensity style for 90 minutes, week in, week out. A skinnier, trickier Jordan Henderson, if you will.
While the player fits the profile of a Jürgen Klopp midfielder to a tee, Ceballos still feels like a budget version of Keïta, and would have made more sense as a transfer target before the Guinean signed on the dotted line. Squad depth is always welcome, but given his predicament at Real, it seems unlikely that Ceballos would accept a move to a club where he’s not going to be a starter. And finally, with five and a half years still left on his contract, Madrid will be able to hold onto the 21-year old unless offered an obscene amount of money.