Last summer, Arsene Wenger was faced with the departure of long-serving right-back Bacary Sagna, and also planned to loan out Carl Jenkinson. It meant he required two new bodies.
Wenger, therefore, recruited both Mathieu Debuchy from Newcastle and Calum Chambers from Southampton, who could also play in central positions but had generally played on the right. Just over a year on, though, and neither can get a game. Arsenal’s right-back slot has been nailed down by someone else entirely – Spanish youngster Hector Bellerin.
Bellerin started last season as third choice in that position, and spent the first couple of weeks talking to coaches about a suitable loan destination. Instead, injuries to Debuchy and Chambers allowed him a surprise start at Borussia Dortmund last September – and while Arsenal were battered away in Germany, Bellerin was one of the few impressive performers.
Since then, the 20-year-old has quickly established himself as a dependable first-teamer. Debuchy was unlucky with injuries last season, and while he’s now recovered, the Frenchman simply hasn’t been able to break into the team and get up to full match fitness. Chambers, meanwhile, had a couple of very difficult games last season: away at Swansea when he was terrorised by Jefferson Montero, and away at Stoke when he was sent off. He now seems more likely to get opportunities in the centre.
Bellerin is most immediately impressive because of his tremendous speed. He famously beat Theo Walcott’s 40m sprint time at Arsenal, which is partly due to his acceleration – an attribute he shares with other former Gunners full-backs like Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy – and is always extremely quick to jump in ahead of opponents and intercept the ball cleanly.
He’s also shown great willingness to turn defence into attack quickly with a sudden burst down the touchline. This has worked nicely because on the opposite flank, the steadier Nacho Monreal has established himself at left-back ahead of Kieran Gibbs. Arsenal therefore need more dynamism from the opposite flank, and Bellerin has provided that expertly.
On Saturday, the Spaniard returned to Vicarage Road, where he spent a couple of months on loan two seasons ago, and turned in yet another commanding performance at right-back. With Watford shielding their centre-backs through Ben Watson and Etienne Capoue effectively, Arsenal needed to look wide when attacking – and with Aaron Ramsey determined to drift inside into the middle, Bellerin always made himself an option.
He was constantly overlapping to stretch the play, and he eventually assisted Ramsey’s goal (the Gunners’ third of the game) with a powerful run and neat pass inside. Overall, he was probably Arsenal’s best performer going forward. The Vine above shows his goal against Liverpool last season, as he cuts in from the right.
The most impressive thing about Bellerin’s game, however, has been his defensive work. You expect quick 20-year-old full-backs to be determined attackers, especially because they’re often converted wingers.
But Bellerin has rarely been exposed defensively either, and is seemingly very capable in all areas at the back. He stands up to opponents well in one-on-one challenges, refusing to get drawn into unnecessary challenges, while his speed means he recovers his defensive position quickly. He’s also very good at defending the back post when the opposition are attacking down the opposite flank.
Most importantly, though, Bellerin seems intelligent enough to vary his style based upon the situation. Therefore, while he spent the majority of the Watford game attacking, in the 3-0 victory over Manchester United, when Arsenal had won the game within the first half-hour, he remained in much more cautious positions and ensured Arsenal weren’t caught out on the counter-attack. It’s that tactical ability which Arsenal’s youngsters have often lacked, but Bellerin seems astoundingly composed for a player who made his debut just over a year ago.
It’s normal for a youngster to suffer a dip in form around a year or 18 months after a surprise development in becoming a first-team player, mainly because of the Premier League’s physicality – youngsters simply become fatigued.
If that happens, Arsenal shouldn’t panic – after all, Debuchy and Chambers are waiting in the wings, allowing Bellerin to have a break from first-team action. Nevertheless, the Spaniard is now Arsenal’s first-choice right-back – and probably will be until his ex-club Barcelona come calling.
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