It took some time for Hector Bellerin’s big Arsenal opportunity to arrive, and when it finally came, the circumstances weren’t ideal.
A 2-0 loss at Borussia Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park may not be the ideal situation in which to make your first start for a club, but the young Catalan is accustomed to doing things in an unorthodox manner.
Bellerin left Barcelona’s academy aged 16 at the height of the gardlanded Guardiola era because he felt Arsenal provided a clearer path to first-team football. When the Gunners were negotiating with the youngster in 2011, Arsene Wenger personally presented him with a three-tier strategy for his career that outlined one season with the Under-18s, one season with the reserves and then a third as part of the senior team, provided he met the demands necessary. It was a deal-clincher for the ambitious youngster.
Speaking with Radio Calella Televisio after confirmation of his move to north London, the young Catalan showed striking maturity for a 16-year-old. "Arsenal offered me a path that was very attractive, and while Barça teach you a style that’s great, I also want to learn other ways of playing," he said. "I think my profile as a player is a good fit for the English league, and Arsene Wenger has always given a lot of opportunities to young players. I hope it happens for me, that I can play with the seniors."
A member of the same Barça academy generation as Sergi Samper and Sandro Ramirez (who are both now playing sporadically with the seniors), Bellerin could easily have stayed – the club rated him highly and offered him a contract extension.
Some might say he shirked a challenge by rejecting the opportunity to stay at the club, but at the time of his Barcelona departure, Bellerin was still largely a winger; a look at the difficulties experienced by Gerard Deulofeu – considered the brightest wide forward to come through La Masia in a generation – shows the path to Barça’s first team can often be an unpredictable one, especially for forward players.
Bellerin didn’t leave the Camp Nou because he wanted to avoid maximum effort: in fact, he had a reputation for applying himself to the highest level at Barcelona. Furthermore, the move to Arsenal required the youngster to drastically alter his game in order to make a permanent change of position. That’s no simple task considering it coincided with adapting to a new culture and second language, all at the tender age of 16.
Bellerin joined Arsenal from Barcelona in 2011
Bellerin had previously played as a right-back on occasions with Barcelona as well as Spain, but it was only when Arsenal’s youth coaches got their hands on him that he really began to meet the demands of the position. It's something of a role reversal that Barça have watched as one of their own players transform into a defender: usually the Catalan club do that with someone brought in from elsewhere.
Bellerin’s conversion has been a steady one, and Arsenal have long been impressed with his hunger to learn and improve in a defensive capacity, perhaps even more than his attacking quality.
After watching the youngster produce a man-of-the-match display when Arsenal beat CSKA Moscow 1-0 in the 2012/13 NextGen Series, this writer commented to then-Gunners youth coach Terry Burton that Bellerin’s variety in attack was impressive.
He not only stretched play out wide, but also filtered neat passes through to the forwards, one of which set up the only goal. His weaker left foot, meanwhile, was strong enough to provide testing shots on target. In short, he provided everything you would want from a modern full-back going forward.
Yet Burton paid little heed to the attacking threat Bellerin provided, and instead raved about his defensive improvements, highlighting his bravery in the air as something the young defender had worked particularly hard to achieve. Bellerin himself revealed that Arsenal’s youth coaches had played a huge part in teaching him how to defend properly, while at the same time making sure not to dull his natural attacking quality. The desire to learn a new style of play that he had expressed back in 2011 was being met.
Bellerin has been involved with the first team for a year
Despite knocking on the first-team door for some time, however, Bellerin had to be patient before he was granted an opportunity to impress Wenger, and even then it was an unusual situation.
Yet another change of position was involved when he made his senior Arsenal debut against West Brom in September 2013, with the player asked to fill in at holding midfield for Mikel Arteta in extra-time of the League Cup third round clash.
A loan spell at Watford followed, but despite making it into the Gunners' squad on a few occasions, he didn't get any more first-team football with his parent club until last Tuesday night.
Grass not always greener
Getting run into the ground by Ciro Immobile and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang probably wasn’t the dream Champions League debut he had in mind, but it sure beats the way his friend Jon Toral spent the night.
The midfielder joined Arsenal at the same time as his fellow Catalan from Barcelona, but while the defender was being put to the test at one of Europe’s great modern stadiums, Toral was at Griffin Park, an unused Brentford substitute as his loan club were hammered 3-0 by Norwich in the Championship. Bellerin’s career is working out well by comparison.
The Spaniard endured a baptism of fire at Dortmund
Arsenal supporters concerned about how prepared Bellerin is to play regularly should keep his past record in mind. Barcelona offered the youngster a new deal for a reason, while the focus he showed in switching countries and changing position in order to improve his career speaks volumes. The fact that respected figures at Arsenal have praised his defensive improvements bodes well, while the Catalan’s reputation for hard work in training suggests any post-Dortmund advice offered by Wenger will be taken on board.
Whether Bellerin can meet the standards necessary to become a fixture of the first team remains to be seen, but if he doesn't it won’t be through a lack of effort, talent or adaptability.