It’s just over two years since Hector Bellerin made his first start for Arsenal, and the strides he has made since that torrid night in Dortmund have been phenomenal. As he grew throughout the second half of the 2014/15 season and the early stages of 2015/16 he cemented himself as one of the best fullbacks in the league and arguably reached his peak in an Arsenal shirt during Saturday’s win at home to Chelsea. But despite being a prominent part of the Arsenal team for most of those two years there remains a significantly polarised opinion on the Spaniard and similarly a number of misconceptions about his strengths and weaknesses as a player.
It’s not a particular surprise given that Bellerin is one of the easiest players around to stereotype. The fact he’s a young La Masia graduate, who was converted from a winger, whose most obvious attribute and perhaps biggest asset is his lightening pace, means that many people have a strong idea about what type of player he is before they’ve properly set their eyes on him for a full match. The temptation to pigeonhole him as an attacking force but someone who defends with reckless abandon, who’s forced to rely on his recovery pace, and can be exposed, has proved all too strong for many, at least those who don’t watch Arsenal all that regularly.
Hector properly cemented his place in the Arsenal XI with his first really strong performance in an Arsenal shirt, in the win away at Manchester City, a match where he hardly had the chance to get forward as Arsenal defended deep against the Premier League Champions. His defensive showing was nothing short of outstanding, proactively coming out to engage with the wide players and tucking in for crosses and balls into the box. His performance was so good, Gary Neville analysed it on Monday Night Football (1:44 onwards (http://www.101greatgoals.com/blog/gary-neville-brilliant-analysis-development-arsenal-starlet-hector-bellerin-video/)).
This was a feature of Bellerin’s first year in the Arsenal first team, with strong performances against Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City again in 2015/16. Ballerin doesn’t have the same aerial presence as Bacary Sagna but against Manchester United in the 3-0 he was a monster defending the back post, making more than twice as many headed clearances as any Arsenal player. It is arguably a testament to Bellerin’s defensive prowess that Eden Hazard, considered by most to be playing at something resembling his PFA Player of the Year 2014/15 form, had little joy on the Arsenal left, was moved inside not long after half time and was ultimately substituted on Saturday. Arguably the last time he had a significant impact in a match against Arsenal was the first meeting in 14/15, before Bellerin was a starter.
Arguably, it’s going forward, where Bellerin has the biggest scope to improve. His crossing became a source of huge frustration amongst Arsenal fans last season, lacking consistent accuracy and usually floated in rather than whipped. It’s perhaps a testimony to this that he’s yet to register an assist for a headed goal in his senior career, though he does have some pre-assists from headed knock downs by Giroud. Similarly, Bellerin’s decision making when presented with cut back opportunities can sometimes be left wanting, and he can fail to pick out the right target as a result.
Despite this, however, no defender got more assists than him in the Premier League last season, and it shows the quality he does have, that despite essentially being a bad crosser, he’s still capable of creating goals and big chances. The other side to the fact he’s never registered an assist for a headed goal, is the fact that all of his 11 assists at senior level have been scored with a foot. He primarily does this in two ways; getting behind the defence with his good movement and sliding the ball across the box, like he did for Walcott’s goal on Saturday, and by playing diagonal passes behind the defence, like for Alexis’ goal at White Hart Lane last season.
One of the reasons Bellerin is often a frustrating figure is because he gets a lot of crossing and cutback opportunities. In an ideal world he’d be more efficient with both, but it shines a positive light on his movement that he’s able to get into the positions in the first place. Obviously his pace is a big factor in this, but also the timing of his runs and the ability to get on the blindside of defending fullbacks is important. His first Premier League assist against Newcastle, his assist against Bayern in the Champions League and his assist for Ramsey in the FA Cup against Sunderland last year are all examples of him getting behind the defence, either through combination play, a good run, or individual skill. His ability to play incisive, diagonal passes in the final third is perhaps his most underrated skill. His vision and weight of pass are superb for a young fullback and some of his assists are more akin to what you’d expect from a midfield playmaker. The video below of his assist for Spain u21s during the last international break is a perfect example. “
Perhaps the most encouraging improvements in Bellerin’s game so far this season is his play in the possession game and build up. Hector has always been a good dribbler. People compare him to Jordi Alba because they’re both fast and Catalan, but they’re very different players. In La Liga last season, Alba attempted 9 dribbles and completed 3 of them. He rarely attempted to get past players himself and when he did he usually failed. In contrast Bellerin completed by far the most dribbles of any defender in the Premier League last season, completing 63 out of 95 attempted take ons. In part this is a product of Arsenal’s system, where the midfielders often do an average job of offering themselves in build up. As a result the ball is often given to the fullbacks who are forced to dribble inside or play tough to execute passes for Arsenal to progress the play upfield. In a way, this works two ways, as it presents Bellerin with opportunities to show off his dribbling, but also presents him with tough situations he sometimes struggles in.
This season it’s been fascinating to watch his partnership with Theo Walcott develop. Last season his best football came in the early months of the season, when Aaron Ramsey was playing on the right of the midfield. As players they are very different and the dynamic of their partnership was an obvious one; Ramsey’s role was predominantly to tuck inside and support the midfield, while Bellerin offered the width and directness that Ramsey didn’t. With Walcott there seemed greater potential for the two to have issues, as they are both similar, theoretically, but Bellerin’s intelligence has allowed the two to form a partnership just as good if not better. Against Hull and Basel in particular, we saw Hector adopting more central positions in possession which allowed Walcott to hog the touchline more. On Wednesday the two regularly swapped their positioning to cause havoc to Basel on their left hand side. Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich talked regularly to the wide players about how they couldn’t occupy the same vertical zones at the same time in possession – when one is in the half space the other has to be on the flank, and vice-versa – and Walcott and Bellerin seem to have found a nice understanding together in this respect. At times Walcott will tuck inside to try and hurt the opposition in more dangerous areas and Bellerin always counters by moving wide and becoming the outlet.
Bellerin is far from the finished article as a fullback, but he’s already one of the best in the league. That he manages to get regular assists despite being a poor crosser is a testament to his other attacking qualities and he continues to be more than secure defensively. He seems to have a strong big match temperament and is becoming a more intelligent player seemingly every match. There’s no reason to believe, even at this stage of Arsene’s reign, that Bellerin can’t go down as one of, if not the best fullback and youth product of the Wenger era.
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