The 2014 transfer window saw Arsene Wenger sign Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers to replace the veteran full-back Bacary Sagna after he decided not to extend his contract. Unfortunately for the two new arrivals it was academy product Héctor Bellerín who finished the 14/15 season as Arsenal’s first choice right-back.
Bellerín’s season started earlier than even he expected after Debuchy was ruled out for three months due to a serious ankle ligament injury and Chambers was suffering from a bout of tonsillitis. As a result he was fast tracked into the first team for a Champions League group stage game against Borussia Dortmund. The game ended with a 3-0 loss as Arsenal got demolished by a superior attacking united but it was an especially tough debut for Bellerín as he wasn’t prepared for a game of that magnitude.
Since his calamitous debut he fought for his place in the Arsenal starting XI and has developed into one of the best right-backs in the Premier League. Bellerín has quickly emerged as one of Arsenal’s most deadly attacking weapons as he tirelessly charges up and down the right flank. He also compliments the sturdy Arsenal left-back Nacho Monreal who has a more conservative playing style.
Bellerín has formed some deadly partnerships with the wide players ahead of him. The first notable partnership was with Aaron Ramsey who was operating from the right-flank of Arsenal’s front three; Ramsey, naturally a central midfielder, spent most games tucking in from the right wing which left huge amounts of space for Bellerín to attack.
His most recent partnership is with Theo Walcott, who after spending most of last season as a striker returned to his favoured right wing position. The difference between these two partnerships is that Ramsey likes to drift centrally and Walcott likes to stay wide to stretch the opposition defence. Both players have a profound effect on how Bellerín attacks space from the full-back position.
Bellerín was educated at La Masia academy as a midfielder so it’s easy to see that he would relish at the opportunity to come in field where he has more passing options and angles to run at the goal. With this new partnership I expect his attacking productivity to only increase over the course of this season.
Key to Arsenal’s attack
One of Bellerín’s biggest strengths is his dribbling. His ability to dribble away from defenders and to get himself out of tight situations has become a very valuable asset to Arsenal. Over the entire 15/16 Premier League season he successfully completed 63 dribbles in 36 appearances which is the most of any full-back in the league. His composure on the ball is already at a high level too, and when pressed by the opposition he never panics and he always protects the ball well with his body. With ability to keep the ball away from tackles and his surprising upper body strength, he’s become very press resistant which is becoming more and more important as teams improve their pressing systems.
He is also very good at long through balls on the ground to find teammates and also cut backs when he charges into the box. He ended the 15/16 Premier League season with an impressive 5 assists which was the joint most of any defender, along with Charlie Daniels of Bournemouth. One area in attack which Bellerín does need to improve though is on his crossing, as he struggles to get the pace and accuracy to find individual players.
Bellerín was thrown in the deep end at the start of his Arsenal career which forced him to improve many aspects of his defensive game, as he used to be an opposition target, especially aerially due to his height and overall build. His decision making has also improved especially when attempting to intercept passes between the opposition full-back and wide forward.
Bellerín isn’t as light weight as people first believe; he has a relatively big build for his age and he’s at a good height (5ft 10in) for a defender. He’s been in some tough situations, most notably against Neymar and Douglas Costa in the Champions League, but he didn’t come up short which is a testament to how mature he is for his age.
His pace is a huge asset especially defensively, with Arsenal playing a high defensive line in most matches they can be exposed when opponents look to play in behind them. Bellerín’s style of defending also suits his teammates very well, and with the addition of the £35m summer signing Shkodran Mustafi Arsenal now have an entire back four full of front footed defenders who prefer to win the ball with good anticipation and accuracy to then start attacks.
Unlike teams who focus on collective defending, Arsenal defenders are often isolated and forced to defend in one-on-one situations so it was very important for Bellerín to learn quickly how to cope in Arsenal’s chaotic approach to defending.
It’s also important to note that Bellerin isn’t the finished article yet, he has a lot to work on but as he’s still very young and I believe he is well ahead of schedule. His offensive statistics are nearly as good as the other elite full-backs in Europe. Another season or two under the guidance of Arsène Wenger, and even greater attacking influence could see him become one of the most complete full-backs in the world.