There was a mixture of emotions for Arsenal fans when news broke last summer of a potential move for Hector Bellerin to PSG, some rejected the prospect out of hand, not entertaining the thought of the Spaniard leaving, but it seemed the majority felt it was a necessary move in order to bring in cash, enabling us to make other moves in the market – but what seemed consistent between both sets of these opinions was a general fondness for the Catalonian and no wonder: the right back has played in three FA Cup finals and won them all, he’s captained the team on many occasions and you can never question his commitment to the cause or indeed his love for the club. So why did so many seem content with the idea of Hector moving onto to pastures new in the summer and has anything changed since then?
A month before the rumours of a Paris move for Bellerin emerged, Arsenal had beaten Chelsea to the FA Cup and just days before the rumours broke, Arsenal picked up the community shield on penalties. If Arsenal fans were to pick out a handful of standout performers who played in both of these games, one of the players many would have brought up would have been Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who looked strong, quick and as silky on the ball as ever, even during a pressure penalty in the Charity Shield shoot-out. Even though it was at left-wing back that the young Englishman shone in those games, with the youngster nearing a hundred appearances for the club and celebrating a first England call-up too, it was the opinion of many that Niles could finally settle on a position and be the future of Arsenal’s right-back position.
Another factor in this debate was the signing of Cedric Soares, although this signing split opinion at the time, it meant that Arsenal now had three players who were natural right sided full-backs, with Cedric being the newest addition and affection and belief growing in Maitland-Niles, it was felt that accepting an approach for Bellerin would be the best remedy to a squad imbalance and Bellerin would likely generate the most cash out of the three, enabling the club to make other moves in the market and plug gaps in the squad.
However, even though the majority of fans seemed ready to say their goodbyes, the club did not and the approach was rejected. Bellerin went onto start the first twelve Premier League games, only missing the thirteenth through an accumulative suspension; this alleviated any doubts over who the first choice was at this position. With Bellerin being ever-present in the league and Cedric and Niles fighting it out and sharing the minutes in the Europa League, any debate over the future of the Spaniard seemed to be over, Maitland-Niles going out on loan to West Brom and re-emphasising his desire to play in Central Midfield seemed to cement this further.
The squad looked set, Bellerin was first choice and had recently become the first team squads longest serving player upon Ozil’s departure, Cedric was a reliable understudy and depending on the success of his loan Niles would either settle in midfield back at Arsenal or be sold in the summer.
However, in recent weeks’ things have looked a little more uncertain, Bellerin was an unused substitute for three Premier League games in a row before being left out entirely against West Ham, with either Cedric or Calum Chambers coming into that position instead. Bellerin missing these league games could be explained away with squad rotation and keeping the ‘first choice’ right back fresh for the Europa League but perhaps the most telling thing when it comes to Bellerin is what Artea did In the second legs of the Benfica and Olympiacos games; when Arsenal were in need of one more goal to make it through to the next round against Benfica, Bellerin was substituted, and in the last ten minutes of the Olympiacos game when Arsenal needed to keep things tight, Bellerin again made way.
In the modern football world, full-backs are predominantly selected for their attacking abilities and failing that, their defensive solidity but clearly when Arsenal needed those strengths against Benfica and Olympiacos respectively, it was Bellerin that was hooked rather than a centre back when In need of goal and instead of sacrificing a forward when trying to park the bus against Olympiacos it was him that was substituted again, that substitute being a like for like one for Calum Chambers surely rubbed salt into the wound. These are signs that Arteta doesn’t trust Bellerin, certainly not in the way he trusts his counterpart Kieran Tierney, who has started and finished each of our last six games, scoring and assisting along the way. The trust in Tierney isn’t unwarranted, week by week he seems to be more and more impressive, this week many have been calling for him to be the next captain of the club. Tierney’s personality is contagious; his defensive and attacking abilities seem to delight in equal measure. The same can’t be said of Bellerin over the last couple of seasons but when he broke into the first team all of those things were being talked about, ‘best young right back in the world’ shouts were being bandied about, captain remarks were made, Bellerin’s pace going forward was exhilarating to watch, his recovery runs even more so and he was chipping in with Goals and assists too, one goal at home to Liverpool in a 4-0 rout comes to mind. So why has this progress stagnated?
The obvious thing that comes to mind is his last injury, an awful one, suffered in a 2-0 home victory against Chelsea in January 2019, he ruptured a cruciate knee ligament, this injury kept him out until the following September where he returned in a Carabao Cup game against Forest, these types of injuries are notoriously bad, not only do they keep players out for many months but they have been to known to damage players physiologically and drastically influence their natural physicality. With Bellerin relying so heavily on his pace, this injury was probably one of the worst he could have got, losing half of yard of pace and bravery in the challenge are big losses to any modern full back but especially so when the more technical attributes of the game allude you, which unfortunately in his game they do.
However, there may be another reason for Bellerin losing his shine and favour with the fans, the game he returned from injury was also Kieran Tierney’s debut, the Scot wowed fans from the start, his mental attributes and hunger were expected but his attacking prose surprised some and this seemed to provoke a change in how Arsenal attacked, yes the formations stayed the same and of course Arsenal continued with a right and left sided full back but attacking down the left started to become far more prevalent than attacking down the right. In most teams there is always one full back that is more adept at attacking, thus, attacks tend come down that side more consistently, while their counterpart on the other side of the pitch will normally tuck in with the two centre backs for defensive solidity.
When Bellerin broke through he seemed to have more attacking edge than either Kieran Gibbs or Nacho Monreal, he had more attacking returns in his debut season than either of those players and it always felt like we favoured attacking down his side, a trend that continued until his injury against Chelsea. Since coming back from injury Bellerin has been playing consistently, on the other side of the pitch it’s been a mixture of Tierney and Saka playing at left back, with Saka and Tierney’s qualities, naturally Arsenal have been favouring that side to attack, a trend that looks to be continuing with Xhaka, Gabriel, Aubameyang and Smith-Rowe playing predominantly on that side, meaning Bellerin is having to be more defensive than he’s been used to in his Arsenal career, in order to maintain the balance in the team, you can see that’s been a difficult adjustment for him to make and at the moment Cedric looks more capable of fulfilling that role from a defensive point of view. Further to that in the last game at the Olympic Stadium Calum Chambers was able to influence the game in a way that we haven’t seen Bellerin do for some time, proving to be comfortable defensively, yet he still found ways to be potent going forward, creating two goals and creating many more chances in the game.
With Arsenal building a team with more left footers than we’ve had for a fair few years, becoming a team that consistently favours attacking the left flank and Arteta starting to show signs of distrust in Bellerin, favouring the likes of Chambers and Cedric instead, if rumours start to circulate and an offer does come in again this summer, it looks likely the club and fans will be unanimous in saying goodbye to our Spanish full back after 10 years at the club.
I’m a lifelong gooner in my early twenties, hailing from coastal North Wales. The passion for all things red and white is passed down from generation to generation in the Collins family, a gift and obsession that was first passed down by my Grandad, who was a regular at Highbury in the 60’s, it’s been a lifetime of sharing the pain and joy together ever since. It was at a cold and wet trip to Manchester City that I caught the bug, a day that ended in a defeat to a Joey Barton penalty, it’s pretty much been down hill from there but I’m sure the glory days I’ve heard so much about will return and I’m here to document that journey.