Young Arsenal defender Daniel Ballard has recently gone out on loan to League One Blackpool and we caught up with Sean McGinlay from utmp who gave us an insight into the young Northern Ireland international’s impact so far at Bloomfield Road.
Daniel Ballard is someone that has come to Blackpool with a lot of promise. At the age of 21, he didn’t have much first-team experience before this season having only made one start for Swindon Town, but is already a Northern Ireland international having captained the Gunners at youth level. That shows his pedigree as a top prospect and from his early spell at the seaside so far, he has all the makings of a real top talent.
For context, the Seasiders’ defence struggled quite significantly in the early part of this season and were desperate for a real commanding presence to organise the back four. We played a different defensive pairing in each of our first few games as we tried to find the best one, which resulted in very inconsistent performances and results for the team. Head Coach Neil Critchley, who managed Liverpool’s U21s before coming to Bloomfield Road back in February, was a keen admirer of Ballard having seen him through the various youth teams, and made clear that he was high on the club’s shopping list in the summer.
Ballard’s debut came in Blackpool’s 1-0 home defeat to Charlton. After our captain James Husband was sent off inside the first minute, it was a baptism of fire for the Northern Irish international who came on after just four minutes, but he took it all in his stride. Immediately, the Tangerines looked so much more assured at the back with him in the lineup and straight away you could see he was a step up from the quality on the pitch, not least with his ability to drive out with the ball.
Critchley has a clear long term philosophy he is wanting to implement at Bloomfield Road, and Ballard fits the role of the aggressive, confident, assured centre half both on and off the ball that Critchley requires. In that debut appearance against Charlton, Ballard made the most interceptions in the Blackpool side as well as the most clearances, showing his superiority against strong opposition. He was voted Man of the match, despite the night ending with an unfortunate 1-0 defeat.
Ballard has significant leadership qualities despite his young age and has showcased his ability to lead by example. In the previous games before Ballard came in, we’d leaked seven goals in our previous two games, but with him in the side we’ve turning the tide to make the back line a more compact and organised setup and only conceded once in his opening two games – following up the defeat to Charlton with a 1-0 win against MK Dons. Ballard again won man of the match with another assured display.
He made a frankly obscene nine clearances in the MK Dons fixture, miles ahead of any other player on the pitch. But what really summed up his all-rounded nature is his 76% pass success rate which was only better by one other player on the park. Not only is he confident in his ability to win a duel against an attacker, he’s also confident to take the ball from that duel, stride out of defence, and play a forward pass to spring a counter-attack. Now if that doesn’t fit the Arsenal mantra I don’t know what does.
His most recent game for the side came away at AFC Wimbledon. Again he proved his worth with and without the ball. His 10 aerial duel wins were way ahead of anyone else on the pitch and he also completed the most amount of passes on the pitch. He has this assured calmness about him that screams top level. Unfortunately, there was a sour note to this game, Blackpool losing 1-0 but Ballard also getting sent off. The red card was fairly bewildering and for an apparent elbow, and even having watched the replay countless times, it’s hard to see anything that happened – the club was even unable to appeal due to insignificant evidence. Since then, he has been serving a suspension, although he is back in contention for the club’s next vital game away at Peterborough United and surely likely to slot straight back into our back four,
Ballard will get his chance again and show us exactly why he is the best centre half at the club right now. We have seen that calm assurance from a previous centre half loanee in Taylor Moore who plays for Bristol City. He fits a similar mould, although I think Ballard is superior to him on the ball. Moore is destined for the Premier League within twelve months after adjusting to life in the Championship with ease. Ballard will ultimately follow that same trajectory.
His attributes culminate into exactly the kind of young centre half you want to see Britain producing. Despite his modern traits, he acclimatises to the more physical and demanding elements that lower league football can bring. The fact he can brush off those challenges with relative ease and come out looking assured is always a good sign when you are trying to develop a player into someone who could play at the highest level.
It is certainly early days for Ballard and he has been incredibly unfortunate in the sense that, had it not been for his serious injury last season, he would probably already find himself at a top-end Championship club. It’s vital that he finds that full season of game time to really build on the talent that is quite clearly there and I’m sure he will be hopeful that Blackpool will provide that for him.
At 21 years old he is already at an age where he should be looking to cement a top division starting place by the age of 23 if he really wants to see himself in that Arsenal first team. I think, barring any major injury or severe lack of game time, he’ll naturally find himself on that progression path. As is the case with many really talented loanee that come to League One, their next season tends to be spent at a top-half Championship club, before they make the step to a West Brom or a Fulham, impress there and that’s when they see their chance come at their parent club.
Daniel Ballard can absolutely make it at Arsenal and I think Arteta is someone that will appreciate what he has to offer. We will make the most of him here at Blackpool and he fits exactly what the manager is trying to achieve with the squad. He just has to hope a bit of luck comes his way because his development has no doubt been affected by his injury.