There are three things that always occur at this time of year in the world of football; International fixtures suck the life out of everyone, illuminous yellow balls are used in games for no good reason whatsoever, and reports start emanating from Barcelona that state that they’re interested in signing an Arsenal player. Again.
We’ve been here before with our Catalan friends, they’re like the one guy who your friend brings to a house party that you’re hosting, and all they do all night is ask you where you bought your furniture. Except, in Barca’s case, they also think you’re obliged to sell them whatever they take their fancy to.
That antique table that looks so nice in the living room? The one that you spent weeks mending and restoring to bring it back to full glory? The one that everyone looks at in envy? Yep, Barca are that guy who offers you half its market value whilst telling you that it’s wasted in your house anyway. No tact, no shame, nothing, all whilst trying to pass off acting as a ‘gentleman’. It’s Bargain Hunt, except with one letter changed in the second word.
We’ve become used to this charade though. If it wasn’t Marc Overmars that they wanted, it was Patrick Vieira. If it wasn’t Thierry Henry they wanted, it was Cesc Fabregas. Over the last decade and a half, Barcelona have viewed Arsenal as a London branch of a budget supermarket where most of the produce is fine, some of it is brilliant and some of it is of no use to anyone (sorry, Alex Song). As soon as something good appears at the Emirates, they appear out of the woodwork as if they were Spurs fans after winning a game in October: predictable, and just as annoying.
With all of this in mind, Barcelona are once again casting an envious eye over one of our players, but this time, it’s not as clear cut a situation as Arsenal having a world-class player and Barcelona wanting him. This time, it is Barca that negotiating from a position of weakness, not Arsenal.
In Hector Bellerin, Arsenal have the best young right-back in the world. If you need a right-back who has to do his own running and Lionel Messi’s on the right wing, and you have infinite money to spend like Barca do, the list of viable candidates isn’t a long one. Real Madrid won’t sell them Dani Carvajal for obvious reasons, Dani Alves just left Barca, Serge Aurier is a headcase. They bought Aleix Vidal from Sevilla last season as he played right-back as a contingency measure and looked good, but he’s been a disaster at the Nou Camp. They’ve had to resort to playing Sergi Roberto, a central midfielder, at right back. It’s a total mess at the moment.
For all the talk of La Masia being a production line of quality players for Barca, the conveyor belt has been empty for a while now. Gerald Pique, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta are still performing at a high level, but the clock is ticking on replacing them. Home grown player restrictions affect Barca just like they affect Arsenal, you need eight players that are either developed at the club or from the country you play in, in any 25-man Champions League squad.
With Barca’s squad becoming more and more un-Catalan as the years go by, the lack of an in-house successor to the likes of Xavi, (unlucky, Cesc) Puyol and Dani Alves means that whenever a chance comes to fill a position of need with a Spanish player, they have to take it, just so it means they can cast a wider net to fill other positions.
As a result, Hector Bellerin isn’t just some vanity signing to be targeted in order to placate fans who want to boast about the size of there club. Bellerin is as near a must-sign player as there is for Barca right now. It was never a case of if Barca came in for him, but when.
So, should Arsenal fear the worst again, just as they have when Barca have poked their head in the door before? No. Not in the slightest. For once, they are in a total no-lose scenario.
If Bellerin, a lad who by every interview he’s given seems to be having the time of his life whilst living in London, decides that he wants to stay around, then the best young right-back in the world will wear red and white for a while to come.
And if he decides that he wants to leave?
Well, when we thought about Thierry Henry leaving, we knew that Arsenal wouldn’t be competing for the league title the next season. It was the same when Cesc Fabregas left. Without the team’s best player and captain, it was going to be an enormous job finding someone to replace them.
Bellerin, as promising a player as he is, will never be as integral to Arsenal’s hopes of competing for silverware as a 30 goals a season striker or a 20 assists a season midfielder. He’s a really good right-back, but he’s only a right-back.
Go through Arsenal’s squad right now and tell me how players you wouldn’t want to lose ahead of Bellerin, and you’ll see why Barca’s interest in signing him is comparatively unimportant. If it were Mesut Özil or Alexis Sanchez being targeted, it would be a problem. Laurent Koscielny, too. Maybe Aaron Ramsey as well. I would even go as far as to say that Alex Iwobi may be more valuable to Arsenal than Bellerin right now, such is the going price for competent attacking midfielders at the moment.
Hector Bellerin might turn out to be the best right-back in the world in three years, and seeing that happen whilst he’s at another club would be far from ideal. But you don’t need world-class fullbacks to be successful, just someone who’s consistently solid week in and week out is more than fine. Think Nacho Montreal or Bacary Sagna. Good, but not world-class. That’s more than enough as long as the quality is there in the centre of the field.
Arsenal don’t have a problem with Hector Bellerin, Barcelona do. And the bigger that problem becomes, the more expensive his replacement will be at the Emirates.