As Dan Ballard heads off to international duty with Northern Ireland, the 21-year-old centre back – fresh from his second Blackpool goal in the 2-0 victory at Oxford at the weekend – reflected on his time at Bloomfield Road so far this season and his hopes for the future at Arsenal. He’s made 15 appearances so far in tangerine, his first real stint in senior football, and has taken to it like a duck to water.
In Neil Critchley’s style of play, the onus is on Ballard to be comfortable with the ball and be able to play out from the back. That’s the key reason Ballard and Arsenal chose the loan move to Blackpool back in the summer, with the loan move extended for the remainder of the season in January. Speaking to The Athletic, Ballard is clear that it’s a key performance indicator for the young defender this season during his loan spell.
“Arteta needs you to be comfortable on the ball, he needs you to be athletic and able to move, be comfortable and brave… I know Arsenal want me to develop playing on the ball, playing out from the back and being in a team that wants to use the ball and score goals in that type of way.”
Playing out from the back
Being able to use his feet is something that has been engrained into his development from a young age, as he’s come through the ranks at Arsenal and captained the youth levels from the u16s up to the u23s. Not only has it been learning to play out, but also the more tactical side in exploiting the opposition based on their weaknesses and preferred style of play under the guidance of Freddie Ljungberg.
“We used to practice specifically playing out from the back and certain patterns of play and did it constantly before games and after games. We would look at other teams, how they would press and how we could pick them off. Suck them in on one side of the pitch, create overloads in other places. It was a more advanced way of looking at football instead of ‘we have better players than you, so we’ll win the game’. It was: ‘How do they play? How can we use our strengths? How can we pick them off and beat them?’ It made me think a lot about what football’s really like. Especially growing up in the leagues, every manager does that now, looking at how teams are different and how you can exploit them.”
The addition of Colin Calderwood to the backroom staff was significant for Ballard, which has allowed for a perfect blend of Calderwood’s nous and experience, alongside the progressive elements of Critchley’s approach. The 56-year-old Scot has been closely coaching the young defender and helping with his decision-making.
“He’s (Calderwood) a really calming character. He always says the right things at the right time and gives you that confidence when you need it but also shows you when you’re doing things wrongly and how to improve.
“Dealing with strikers. Even today in training, my relationships with the other centre-backs and marshalling the strikers. We were working on that and he was giving me lots of advice, almost trying to — not calm me down — but to make me more composed. I don’t necessarily have to be so aggressive all the time, I can be a bit more patient and he lets me know when I can do that and where I should be more aggressive.
“I’ve always loved being a defender. I’ve always loved tackling, heading, defending and clearing balls off the line. That’s always been in me, but more recently I’ve had to learn to be more composed, I don’t have to win every ball. The other side of the game, passing the ball and clearing the ball into the right areas, getting my head up and picking out players. The more fine-tuned things is what I’m trying to learn to become that rounded player.”
Arsenal are known to be very careful with where they send their young players and therefore it’s testament to the club, board and manager that we’ve been trusted with one of their prized possessions for the season. Ballard is delighted to have been given the chance to come and play in tangerine.
“When Blackpool came around, it was the perfect fit.”
What the future holds
Unfortunately for us, Ballard sees his future at the Emirates and hopes to be given the chance by young manager Arteta – someone who is giving youth a chance. They sold Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis in January, while David Luiz’s contract expires in the summer. That may give Ballard a gap to go in and play a role in their squad next season, after a season of learning to play senior football at Bloomfield Road.
It will take some work if he’s to manage to have an impact at Arsenal though, with a manager who has impeccable standards having spent time in the coaching staff of Pep Guardiola.
“There were four or five of us young lads that were called up to the first team. He (Arteta) asks for a lot from his centre-backs and every player. You need to be up to the standards and improve yourself so that when the opportunity arises, you’re ready and can step in, play well, keep your spot and hopefully do well for the team.
“If you have a season under your belt (at Blackpool) that you can look back on and think ‘I played 20-30 games and I’m confident that I can do it’, hopefully you can then step up and do it at Championship or Premier League level.”
If it’s to be the Championship, then we need to do all we can to get out of this division and secure him for a second term next season – hopefully he can help us get there and make him a true fan favourite.
One thing’s for sure, we’re absolutely loving having Ballard as part of our squad and if we can keep hold of him past this season then it will indicate we’re really progressing as a football club. Personally, I think he’s got everything to suggest he will go on and have a career at the highest level. Defenders don’t fully mature until they’re around 25-26 and therefore he’s still got 4-5 years to perfect his game in the Championship and lower end of the Premier League.
Craig Cathcart is one who comes to mind as a young defender who clearly had the attributes but perhaps made a couple of mistakes when he was with us in his early 20s. Fast-forward a decade, and he’s now got over 150 Premier League appearances behind him. He’s the man who will be alongside Ballard in Northern Ireland’s side this week, and is someone who Ballard can certainly go on and surpass in his career over the next 15 years. Hopefully it’s in tangerine!
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We recently spoke to former Blackpool defender and captain Peter Clarke – find out what he had to say in our recent episode of the 1-2 podcast.
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