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Hector Bellerin's Unmerited Aversion

By Max Mishcon (Debut Article)

It’s a chilly Tuesday in N5, on the 20th of October, 2015.

An anxious Emirates Stadium bears Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal clinging on to a precarious 1-0 lead to Pep Guardiola’s Bayern.

In the dying embers of the game, a 20-year-old Hector Bellerin intercepts an underhit pass made by David Alaba just inside the Bayern half. He scampers to meet the second ball with unmatched acceleration, knocking the ball past Thiago, muscling him out of the way with immense strength. He spots Mesut Özil in the six yard box and squares it for him to finish.

Chaos and entropy ensued, and no one knew it at the time, but this was the moment that made Hector Bellerin.

Fast-forward to now, Arsenal are sitting 9th in the Premier League, the atmosphere around the club is one of sanguineness - Bellerin is a shadow of the player he once was, mainly due to factors outside of his control.

The Spaniard is now known for many things, but before, synonymous with him was blistering speed, celerity and an endearing, youthful spirit.

It’s hard to believe that in 2015, Bellerin was faster over 40m (4.41 seconds) than Usain Bolt (4.64 seconds.)

The La Masia graduate, after flourishing from a shy, introverted youngster into a buoyant, modern leader, put up consistent season after consistent season. Bellerin then ruptured his ACL in January 2019, an injury that has turned out to be career defining.

Since his return, he’s declined in every department.

Physically, he’s skinnier (partly due to his vegan diet), which by no means is a bad thing, but he is frail - evident in Jack Grealish’s infamous charge and budge into Bellerin in Villa’s 3-0 win over the Gunners in November.

His distinctive pace has vanished, which has also impacted his overall game, illustrated nicely by Twitter’s favourite physio, Dr. Rajpal Brar, DPT: “Many of his faults now - decision-making and technical proficiency - were problems then as well. They’re just magnified now because he can’t quite make up for them physically.”

Technically, his stats make for grim reading. In the 2017-18 Premier League season, Bellerin was putting up 2.39 SCA per 90, compared to the league average for full-backs that season: 1.52. This season, he’s only completing 1.79, only 0.09 higher than the league average.

He’s also completing fewer key passes, progressive passes and passes into the final third, all per 90, than he was last season. Even on the eye he looks more timid offensively. He will often pass backwards as opposed to taking his man on. Furthermore, he’s been partly criticised for Nicolas Pépé’s defective form as he usually opts to make an inverting run as opposed to an overlapping one, occupying the space in which Pépé is most effective, leaving the Ivorian isolated. However, this is most likely an instruction from Arteta.

Bellerin’s diminishing attacking statistics may suggest he is compensating for them defensively - this is not the case. He is averaging less tackles and interceptions per 90 (2.03) than he was in 2017-18 (2.36) in an Arsenal side that averages less possession, meaning there is more time for him to make said tackles and interceptions. He is also completing less pressures (11.71 compared to 9.71) and at a less successful rate (29.5% won compared to 26.2%.)

Simply put, Bellerin is too passive, in a position and area of the pitch where being active is becoming increasingly imperative.

What’s clear is that Bellerin has been underwhelming, this season especially, but what is perplexing is the narrative surrounding the uproar at his performances.

Firstly, he is not at fault for sustaining such a severe injury.

Secondly, the notion that he must “fOcUs oN fOoTbaLL” is as fatuous as it is frustrating.

For any young footballer or person, he is a superb example of using your influence for good: from modelling, to photography, to veganism, to environmentalism, to fashion designing, to shareholding in Forest Green Rovers, to speaking at Oxford University, to creative direction for FIFA 21, to mental health and LGBTQ+ rights campaigning; the list is endless.

From afar, he looks to be an intelligent, articulate, kind and cool guy. All these great ventures the Spaniard delves into should be praised, as he continues to break the boundaries of what a footballer can be. However, this has had the opposite effect, acting as a lazy way to berate Bellerin. There is no correlation whatsoever between external activities and lifestyle with performance.

Rob Worthington’s piece on Bellerin and football’s homophobia problem goes more in depth into this, it’s a brilliant read.

So what is to blame for Bellerin’s poor form?

Well… Nothing.

He has put everything into recovering from his injury, evident in his 9-part documentary. It’s just a case of Arsenal needing to upgrade.

By no means am I saying Bellerin is exempt from criticism - no one is - but here is a guy whose body has simply given up on him; I feel more solicitude and sympathy for Arsenal’s number 2 more than anything.

This brings about another issue: sentiment, and it’s value - or lack thereof.

The Gunners simply cannot afford to keep Bellerin at the club out of compassion. It is clear he bleeds Arsenal, but as we have learnt the hard way, sometimes a difficult or unpopular decision in the present will pay off in years to come.

If there is a player who isn’t playing to the required standards with value in the market, then…

Whether his replacement should be brought in or is already at the club is yet to be seen. Personally, I think Reiss Nelson could make for a brilliant right-back, but that’s for another time…

I was at the Emirates for both the aforementioned Bayern game and Chelsea game in which he ruptured his ACL. Reminiscing now, the ecstasy and elation of the Bayern game antithesises the anguish and angst of the Chelsea game poetically.

He came from Spain as a boy and we’ve watched him grow into a man.

What is striking, and quite sad to me, is that the progression and blossoming of Bellerin’s character is almost linear to the regression of his performances on the pitch.

In conclusion, Hector Bellerin is proof that it is entirely possible to be a really great guy, but not a really great footballer.

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