Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin has quickly become one of the world’s best right backs
The La Masia product has made himself indispensable to Arsenal over the past two and a half years, and now he has a new contract to show for it.
If you were to ask any Arsenal fan about Hector Bellerin in the August of 2014, only a fraction would’ve known who you were talking about. Bellerin joined Barcelona at the age of 8, but the young right-back swapped La Masia for London Colney back in 2011, and remained largely absent from first-team action during his first three years. Bellerin has quickly moved up the ranks since then, and is now one of the most important names on manager Arsène Wenger’s team sheet.
On Monday, the Spaniard extended his current contract until 2021 at a reported salary of £100,000 per week. That puts him in the same bracket as some of Arsenal’s top earners, and should end speculation about a transfer to Barcelona or Manchester City.
Initially thought of as a one-dimensional speed demon, Bellerin has matured into an all-round defender who doesn’t just depend on his pace to get him out of sticky situations. His journey was muddy, but he’s improved his positional intelligence, honed his innate athletic abilities, and is now one of the Premier League’s biggest rising stars.
The Barcelona product was pried away from his boyhood club, along with Jon Toral, during the summer of 2011 in the deal that sent Cesc Fabregas back to the Catalan giants. He first arrived in London as a right-winger, but within months, Arsenal’s academy coaches, namely Steve Bould, had remodeled him into a right-back.
Speaking to Arsenal.com, Bellerin pointed out the position change as one of the reasons he was enjoying life in England.
“Last year I learnt a lot from Steve Bould about how to defend and every day I feel more and more comfortable as a right back. It gives me a chance to go forward, and I am learning every day about the defensive side — I really enjoy it.”
Gifted with the technical ability of a wide midfielder and remarkable pace, Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger knew as early as 2013 that he had an immensely talented, yet raw player on his hands.
In July of the same year, Bellerin signed his first professional contract with the Gunners, and the following September he made his competitive debut against West Brom in the third round of the League Cup.
Two months later, Bellerin was loaned out to Watford, still a Championship side back then, with the expectation that he would impress even more in the second tier of English soccer.
In reality, he would struggle to make his mark on the team. Watford played with wingbacks, which would have complimented Bellerin well, but Ikechi Anya was a lock at the right and the few times the Spaniard was able to feature he played on the left flank.
After completing his underwhelming loan spell, Bellerin returned to the Gunners in 2014 — the year he would break through. However, there were a lot of things that had to go right, and go wrong, before Bellerin became a first team regular.
A void to fill
In the late May of 2014, just ten days after Arsenal ended their nine-year trophy drought, Bacary Sagna announced that he would not be extending his contract with the Gunners, which was already set to expire at the end of the season. By early June, the French international had agreed a deal with reigning champions Manchester City.
The departure of Sagna, a staple at the club for eight years, left a significant hole to fill. Wenger, anticipating his needs for the summer, signed the man that kept Sagna out of Didier Deschamps’ 2014 World Cup side — Newcastle right-back Mathieu Debuchy.
“The obvious replacement for Sagna was Debuchy,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. “He knows what to expect and that’s of course a huge advantage.”
Debuchy for Sagna was basically a like-for-like switch. Both were capped fullbacks with Premier League experience, quick in transition, and good with interceptions.
Meanwhile, Calum Chambers had only just been brought in to provide depth. With Carl Jenkinson still in north London, Bellerin looked predestined for minimal playing time. Perhaps an expanded role in the League Cup.
However, during pre-season Bellerin played as if he was on a mission, impressing fans with his speed and flair in a 5–1 rout of Benfica in the Emirates Cup. A year later, he cited that day as an important one in his journey.
“It was probably one of the games that was a real turning point of my career,” Bellerin told Arsenal.com.
Carl Jenkinson was eventually loaned out to West Ham, Debuchy would injure his ankle against Manchester City the following September, and surgery would rule him out for three months.
Bellerin had made his competitive debut for Arsenal a year prior, but his first match of consequence came at Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League group stages. Unfortunately, the young fullback was left exposed by an elite Dortmund attack.
Throughout the first half of the 2014–15 season, Wenger’s decision to start Bellerin seemed like a gamble. Still unrefined, the right-back had trouble honing his defensive skills and was out of sorts in an unfriendly atmosphere, but was blessed with enough pace to track back when he was caught out of position.
On Dec. 6, 2014, the Gunners traveled to face a Stoke City side that had troubled them greatly in the past. By halftime, they were losing 3–0, and Bellerin was taken off for Danny Welbeck.
Later, the right-back conceded that it “would have been easier to be destroyed by [that] situation.” And Bellerin could very well have succumbed to the pressure, but he didn’t. He fought back.
Earning his spot
Debuchy suffered a dislocated shoulder, his second major injury of the 2014–15 campaign, in January against Stoke. Bellerin would again be the one to replace him off the bench, and this time he had the chance to challenge his doubters.
A week later, in Arsenal’s 2–0 win at the Etihad, the young fullback cemented his place in Wenger’s first choice team. He and Francis Coquelin, both graduates of the youth academy, were instrumental in shutting out City’s attack, and forged the core of this new-look Arsenal team. Since then, he hasn’t looked back.
His speed was always obvious; Bellerin holds the 40-meter sprint record at Arsenal, famously beating Theo Walcott’s time by one-hundredth of a second. But he’s now sharpened his positional awareness, with his best years in front of him.
Luck, serendipity, or fluke. No matter how you slice it, Bellerin’s meteoric rise is well-deserved. At just 21 years old, many already consider him a world-class talent.
When he stepped in for Debuchy, even the untrained eye could see that the skill set was there. But it was the pace with which he outgrew the U-21 level, the patience with which he learned to hone his skills, and the resolve with which he rebounded from those potentially traumatic performances at Signal Iduna Park and the Britannia that truly set him apart.
It’s no surprise that his former club and the likes of Manchester City have become wise to his progress. But Wenger has been there before. Ironically enough, the most prominent instance concerned the deal that brought Bellerin to north London.
Fabregas came to the Gunners at the ripe age of 16, only to return to the Camp Nou eight years later. Bellerin, on the other hand, has repaid Wenger’s faith and signed a new contract at Arsenal, in turn rejecting Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola’s advances.
In the end, it looks like Arsenal got a pretty sweet deal out of that Fabregas sale.
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