It’s safe to say that my first impression of Hector Bellerin wasn’t a particularly good one. In the winter of 2011, I was at Barnet’s old Underhill ground to watch the Arsenal U-21s. A fresh faced, 16 year old Bellerin sat in front of me; having joined the Gunners that summer with teammate Jon Toral as part of the deal that saw Cesc Fabregas re-migrate to Barcelona (a very peculiar transfer when you think about it; “Here, have that academy graduate we plucked from you back in return for a wedge of cash and two more of your academy players.”)
Perhaps one can forgive a 16 year old boy, sat shivering in a crumbling old stand, for not adopting a bolt upright posture and appearing bright eyed and bushy tailed. But during that game, I don’t think Bellerin averted his gaze from his phone for a single second. Even when Rhys Murphy (remember him?) managed to twat a penalty against the crossbar, Hector was unmoved. Gaze firmly fixed on his smartphone, ears buried in his headphones and head sinking ever further into his shoulders as the night air grew cooler. Maybe my cynicism had reached something of a ceiling. Supplanting the loss of a homesick Barca boy with players just as likely to long for their Catalonian cradle seemed a little futile.
One of the tragedies of having your heart broken by somebody is that you immediately assume conspiracy, as if everybody else is likely to fatally wound you given the chance. I was left distinctly unimpressed by the fact that Hector was so distinctly unimpressed by the game unravelling before him. Leaving aside the fogeyish resistance to the headphones and the inability to compute any event not projected onto a pixelated screen (“Tsk! The Yoof of today!”), I had, and still have, this romantic notion that football should constantly hold the attention of the footballer. I like to think that the good player is the studious player, analysing every angle and crevice of the game in the quest for self betterment, but also because it excites them to do so.
That Bellerin looked so bored by the whole thing left me cold(er). I wasn’t expecting Martin O’Neill sat in front of me, but at least somebody who found Thomas Eisfeld and Nico Yennaris more exciting than WhatsApp and Angry Birds. I attended most U-21 matches in this period and my first impressions of Hector were slowly proved to be folly. After the usual surfeit of January loans in 2012, when more seasoned U-21 players are purged for short term spells in the Football League, Bellerin began to play regularly as a graduate from the U-18s. Swiss right back Sead Hajrovic joined Barnet on loan and, at some point; the decision was made to switch Bellerin from right midfield to right full-back.
It’s very common for young midfielders to be seconded to the full-back position in the Arsenal youth teams. Much in the same way that Wenger plays central midfielders on the flank during their developmental years. I imagine the logic is similar, teaching players to play in tighter spaces and at youth level, full-back is probably used as a developmental role to engender greater defensive awareness. Arsene favours at least one ‘lateral’ style attacking full-back in his team and his lineage of left-backs follow something of a pattern. Gael Clichy and Kieran Gibbs were left wingers at youth level, Ashley Cole was a striker. Lauren, a right-back, was an established midfielder of some pedigree when he made the switch. (Arsenal Ladies’ right-back Alex Scott was a striker until her early 20s, to stretch the theme).
Bellerin got to grips with the position rather quickly. Sitting in Underhill’s main stand along the side of the pitch, he progressed right under our noses. Bellerin played behind the German Thomas Eisfeld, which suited him down to the ground. Eisfeld liked to cut inside in search of goalscoring opportunities, leaving Bellerin to provide the width. With his Velcro, La Masia honed touch and his rapid recovery speed; he became a constant outlet for attacks down Arsenal’s right hand side. Those months spent playing behind Eisfeld in the U-21s proved portentous; informing his current relationship with Aaron Ramsey, whose modus operandi in the last weeks of the season was similar to Eisfeld’s. (Young Thomas may never appreciate his legacy…..)
In 2012-13, upon Hajrovic’s return from an inauspicious loan from Barnet, Bellerin was retained at right back. When Hajrovic did appear, he was stationed at centre half. It was clear that Arsenal’s coaching staff felt Bellerin was a tree more likely to bear fruit. Hector enjoyed an outstanding season in 2012-13 as he increasingly learned the position. By now, Chuba Akpom had broken into the U-21 side. With Chuba prowling the penalty area, Bellerin learned to hone his delivery. He has a wonderfully varied arsenal when it comes to getting the ball into the mixer. Whether it needs clipping, stroking or walloping, Bellerin always applies the correct flourish and he learned a great deal from serving a striker like Akpom.
Olivier Giroud will probably be very grateful for the time Bellerin spent with Chuba. There was a sweet moment at The Emirates in February, as the full-time whistle sounded to signal the end of Arsenal’s 5-0 demolition of Aston Villa. Scorer of the 5th goal, Bellerin, and second half substitute Akpom left the field with their arms around one another’s shoulders. “We’ve come a long way, baby” they may have uttered as they left the field. Arguably, Bellerin’s breakthrough into the first team should have arrived a year earlier than it did. By the end of 2012-13, it was apparent that the boy from Barcelona had surpassed the rigours of U-21 level, but he returned late for the 2013-14 season having taken part in the Euro U-19 Championships with Spain.
As a result, he did not get the chance to train with the first team for pre-season. This is a target and a crucial development opportunity for the mainstays of the U-21 side. Once re-attuned to the pace of the season, he joined Gianfranco Zola’s Watford on loan. Zola utilised a wing back system which perfectly suited Bellerin’s qualities. But Zola was sacked during Hector’s stay and his loan was terminated prematurely. From the Championship, he was soon playing for the U-21s in front of sparse crowds at Underhill again. Yet psychologically, it did nothing to arrest his development. Signs of Wenger’s beloved ‘mental strength’ were evident and this may have stood him in good stead for potentially traumatic performances against Borussia Dortmund and Stoke City this season, neither of which seemed to unduly affect him.
Five weeks after that performance at Stoke, Bellerin was entrusted with the right back role for the away match at Manchester City. Many, myself included, expected the more conservative Calum Chambers to be given the nod to execute Arsenal’s safety first game plan. Bellerin repaid the manager’s faith handsomely in that game, which will surely come to represent one of the bookmarks of Bellerin’s blossoming career. He is far from the finished article, he can occasionally be exposed in one on one situations when pace counts for less and he is obviously still learning the game. But it’s his coolness that impresses as much as his talent. Perhaps, on that chilly night in Barnet back in 2011, I mistook his serenity for aloofness.
And, perhaps, Arsenal got a better deal out of the Fabregas sale than we previously believed.
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