The first half against Bayern was a reminder of Hector Bellerin’s Champions League debut to forget.
In a game where Arsenal were very much second best, our then 19-year-old was given a run around by Dortmund’s finest, although it is worth noting that his more senior colleagues hardly came away smelling of roses either. It was a sobering evening.
However, the Spaniard turned his own fortunes around with some hard graft, some dedication and no small amount of resilience last season, to such an extent that he played all 180 minutes of the last 16 tie against Monaco.
It was the same story last night
Douglas Costa looked like a world beater for the first 45 minutes of the Bayern Munich game, undoubtedly giving Bellerin his sternest test for a very long time. However, that same resilience led to our fullback’s revitalised second half where he came out and played with conviction and control, such that the very same Costa was barely in the game.
His improvement was marked enough that Bayern’s default probing ball became an attempted diagonal in behind Monreal, instead of a rather lazy “give it to Costa and let him run at Bellerin” tactic. Bizarrely, perhaps it also helped when the Ox replaced Ramsey whose double teaming on Costa seemed more to confuse our defence than aid them. But mostly it was Hector’s own resilience to adapt to the situation and come at it from a different angle.
It is that resilience that underpins Bellerin’s speedy rise and his success in a position where it is all too easy to be schooled by an opposition player. It is rare in any other part of the pitch to be so exposed one on one and be charged with getting it right every single time.
It is a quality that so far Bellerin has shown in greater quantities than Calum Chambers, who has only just started to display sub maturity, and is at least one piece of the puzzle as to why the Englishman finds himself warming the bench while his continental counterpart can test himself against the best in Europe.
But why is it so important?
Mental resilience is important at the top level in any sport – it’s one of the assets that works in Walcott’s favour when he misses a chance because he can put it from his mind when the next one comes along, and it’s also something any player who had suffered a major injury or a plague of minor injuries alike requires to come back at the top level.
However, it is especially important for a young defender playing one of the two wider roles. Not just because of the one on one battles that characterise their games but also as a result of the myriad of different styles they may face
Typically, a centre back will face either a big and strong forward who is good in the air or a fast and slight striker who likes to get in behind. It is only when you get that rare mix of the two that you have a major problems and that is usually only against the very top sides.
Like Bayern, for example.
For a full back, on the other hand, it is not unusual to face a completely new style each and every game, with some proving more challenging than others depending on the defender’s own style.
Some wingers like to go down the line, some cut inside (oh, hi Alexis!), some rely on kick and run pace, others on tricky dribbling. Some focus on creating for others while some are very direct, some like to use their full back to overlap, others treat them as a decoy, some are genuine wingers and some are just out of position central midfielders. Maybe that last one is just Arsenal actually.
Sometimes these different styles even materialise in the same game, particularly if a substitution is made, and for a full back it is crucial to be able to adapt to these different styles and win your personal battle on the pitch.
That adaptability, resilience if you will, is what sets Hector Bellerin apart from others his age and indeed from the competition of much more experienced defenders.
It’s all about the future
Bellerin could have had Costa in his pocket for the full 90 minutes, but in all honesty I’m not sure we would really have noticed in the context of the wider team performance. That would have been great for the present moment but it wouldn’t have helped us learn anything about Hector, or indeed helped Arsene or the boy himself learn.
Instead, we have a situation where he was tested, he struggled, he adapted and he coped, and now he has come out the other side a better player. He has gained the confidence that when the chips are down, he can pick himself up, dust himself down, and adjust to the scenario.
Bellerin may not have enjoyed the first 45 minutes the most out of all the pitch time he has had in his career to date, but in some ways it could be his most valuable.
Arsenal have a real footballer on their hands.