“You can’t change your feelings towards somebody but then you have to be fair, be really demanding and it has to be a space that has to be shared and lived in in a different way between a player and a manager. It doesn’t mean your feelings are different towards the person.” Mikel Arteta was talking about the transition between being Hector Bellerin’s teammate and being his coach during his pre-Benfica press conference.
However, I think he hit upon something more generally with Bellerin that many Arsenal fans experience. In recent years, Hector has explicitly tried to break the mould for what we expect from a footballer with his willingness, nay, desire to talk about subjects like global warming, homophobia and veganism. His interest in fashion has earned him admirers and detractors in equal measure.
Speaking on these subjects have made him a divisive figure separate from his football- simply because they appeal to some people more than others. You could probably divide Bellerin’s popularity down political lines and he hardly shied away from this distinction on General Election Day in the UK in December 2019 when he used the hashtag #FuckBoris.
Young people across the world have a chance to change what the future can be. Today's the chance for all the British people to influence what your future & those living here holds. #FuckBoris #GoVote pic.twitter.com/epHbI3sdNw
— Héctor Bellerín (@HectorBellerin) December 12, 2019
In short, it’s difficult to feel neutral about Hector Bellerin the person and that is fine. Cards on the table, I am exactly the sort of person that is drawn to Hector and considers him a refreshing antidote to the modern sportsperson. While managing Cardiff City, Neil Warnock was outspoken with his pro-Brexit views and it’s fair to say that I don’t feel as warm and fuzzy towards Warnock (even if I do find him to be an entertaining character and a good football manager).
Warnock had every right to express those views, disagreement isn’t censure. It is fine for people to not be drawn to Hector Bellerin, the only aspect I would push back on is the absurd suggestion that his interest in fashion, for instance, is a “distraction” from his football. I think this discourse plays into some very difficult and troubling stereotypes we hold about masculinity and sportsmen.
Footballers have lots of spare time- the physical demands of their job absolutely demand that they have plenty of downtime. When a footballer expresses an interest in cars, or horse racing or playing their computer console, nobody suggests those things detract from their football. (With the possible exception of David James, who once honestly attributed his own poor form down to an addiction to video games). There is no reason for clothes to offer a greater distraction than having a Playstation 5. Distraction is a good thing, it’s one of the main reasons that we all watch football after all.
When it comes to assessing Hector Bellerin’s form on the pitch, none of us arrive without luggage. Some of us, myself included, really, really like Hector Bellerin the person and therefore especially want Hector Bellerin the footballer to excel. Some of us really, really don’t like Hector Bellerin and, subconsciously, don’t want him to excel.
With football behind closed doors over the last nine months or so, I have been much more connected to what is happening on social media during games. When inside the stadium, I usually have neither the signal nor the compulsion to check my Twitter timeline during a match. It could be that my match day experience is more closely tethered to my digital experience at the moment; but I am noticing that Bellerin’s performances are drawing a lot of negative attention.
It could be that I am only noticing it because I feel protective of him. My own impression of his performances this season is that he has been up and down, there have been good moments and bad moments. I certainly don’t think he is the player I thought he would be by age 25. Had you asked me when he was 19, I would have predicted that he would be the long-term replacement for Dani Alves at Barcelona.
He suffered a very bad knee injury just over two years ago, of course. He has also been a constant in a team in an absolutely constant state of upheaval and transition. The data doesn’t show a significant dropoff in any of the metrics that you would expect from a full-back. However, the eye test has shown up some frustrations.
His final ball has been inconsistent and we have all seen enough opposition goals this season where Bellerin has been guilty of switching off defensively. He is occasionally guilty of ball-watching and losing his man. Yet broadly he has been part of a defence that has been relatively sturdy this season. He has three assists in all competitions which doesn’t sound great until you realise that only Emile Smith-Rowe and Bukayo Saka have more. (Willian, Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe and Joe Willock have three as well).
How far is Bellerin a victim of Arsenal’s poor approach to attacking teams and how much is he a responsible party? Is he guiltier than any of the other attacking players who are putting up lower than usual numbers? Arsenal’s right hand side has been an issue all season, with Willian and Pepe both flattering to deceive ahead of him. The team has a heavily left-sided bias.
This season, I think there are a few things going on for Bellerin. The constant shifting of personnel on the right flank hasn’t helped. His relationship with Nicolas Pepe is dysfunctional and I think this is because Bellerin is asked to protect the right channel rather than the right flank. His role is to tuck into the right of midfield and form a barrier against counter-attacks.
This has formed a big part of Arsenal’s defensive improvement, they concede far fewer goals in transition and on the counter attack. However, in an attacking sense, Bellerin being asked to patrol the channel creates a friction for Pepe because that is the area where Pepe likes to roam. Pepe really needs an overlapping full-back to help him to commit players and Hector is asked specifically to underlap rather than overlap.
That means that Bellerin and Pepe are often attacking the same space. Pepe has performed better on the left flank because he has that overlap from left-back. Tierney’s role is to overlap and attack from the touchline at left-back but Arteta, understandably I think, doesn’t want two overlapping full-backs because it can leave a team too exposed to transitions.
One of them has to tuck in and become a quasi central-midfielder and Bellerin is more suited to that role than Tierney. Hector has eight yellow cards in the Premier League this season from only 22 fouls in 21 starts. It seems like an anomaly until you understand that his specific role is to help stop counter-attacks, which is fertile yellow card territory.
Bellerin has two years left on his contract and with rumours of a move to PSG abounding on a regular basis, it might be a good time for Arsenal to cash in and for Arteta to sign the more specific right-back that he needs. Hector has been with the club for a decade now and a change of scenery might be what he needs for his career too- it happens to most of us in our professional careers.
Sometimes looking at different walls every day reinvigorates you professionally. However, I don’t think anyone that regards Bellerin as a magnetic character and an excellent ambassador for Arsenal need apologise for feeling resistant to that. Hector is so dyed into the Arsenal wool that he developed a North London accent despite not learning to speak English until he was 17. It’s difficult to feel indifferent towards Hector Bellerin and there’s not a good reason for you to try.