Arsenal had a stable, accomplished right back in Bacary Sagna for over five years and when it came time to replacing him they had three options, plus Hector Bellerin. Carl Jenkinson was sent on loan, Debuchy was brought in as the safe Sagna successor and Calum Chambers was brought in as an auxiliary full back. Through circumstance of injury and incongruence, the Catalan teenager was given a baptism of fire away to Dortmund in the Champions League and emerged unscathed.
Since then, he’s scored his first goal for the club and put in some fantastic defensive displays. His most notable achievement yet has been parking Debuchy on the bench for the rest of his time at Arsenal.
It’s commonplace amongst young fullbacks to expect them to focus on attack and defend second. That’s what Bellerin was like in the youth teams. Jeorge Bird, Arsenal youth expert, told ThinkFootball: “He was always regarded as a player with strong attacking attributes and his crossing and pace made him a major threat in the final third when he was playing for the youth sides at Arsenal. He was an adequate defender but he did get caught out on a few occasions, particularly by skilful players.
“His loan spell at Watford,” continued Bird, “although short, was also crucial in his development in terms of allowing him to gain experience of professional football.”
That experience has been the difference between Bellerin and some of his older team-mates. Being placed in a side that has an established back line made the transition comfortable for him and has accelerated his development vastly. Players like Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere haven’t really cemented places for themselves and should be further along their development cycles.
Bellerin acknowledged all the changes he needed to make to his game and implemented them. His defensive work earlier last season suggested a reliance on his incredible pace to recover from lost one-on-ones or poor positioning. Now it only serves as an afterthought in his defensive armoury. Bellerin does very well when isolated with an attacker and doesn’t disrupt Arsenal’s cautious approach when they see out games, like against Manchester United this season.
The 20-year-old isn’t just comfortable defending in wide areas; when the opposition attack down Arsenal’s left flank Bellerin almost always places himself to cover any free attackers at the back stick. Arsenal’s centre-backs don’t necessarily deal with striking partnerships very well and this can leave wingers in space on counters and that’s where Bellerin’s astute positioning dissolves attacks.
A lot of this comes from his tactical acumen. From the brink of a loan move last season to beating Bayern Munich within twelve months takes adapting beyond just a physical and psychological frontier to a tactical one. With Wenger changing to a more reactive approach, the players need to train and perfect different, more complex playing systems. This means the defence need to know how high to press United attackers and how much space one can afford Douglas Costa, alongside a lot of concentration.
This has doubtless helped change Arsenal’s play, meaning Bellerin can hang back and burst forward in an instant to intercept the ball – minimising play behind the back line and putting themselves in a better, higher position to counter from.
This all stems from his understanding of the game, that’s why his delivery is as good as it is. He knows what run either Walcott or Giroud are going to make, and either finds them or forces the defender into a hasty decision.
Jamie Carragher said to Gary Neville that nobody grows up wanting to be a full back and that they’re either converted wingers (which is the case here) or couldn’t quite do it at centre-back. Although it may be a bit exaggerated, considering the growing influence of them, full-backs don’t generally leave the biggest impression on games. But Bellerin has, whether through covering half the pitch to stop Gomis scoring in an empty net or that outrageous interception and assist for Özil against Bayern. That builds his argument for being the best number 2 in the world currently. Based not on talent but consistency and impact.