All players take an undetermined amount time to return to their best form after coming back from injury.
Some take months, others take weeks, some take a couple of games. On Saturday, Héctor Bellerín only needed 15 minutes.
Bellerín looked understandably off his brilliant best when he initially came on for the hamstrung Mustafi. This was partly due to ring rust and partly due to his teammates readjusting to his skillset and the supporting runs he likes to make, rather than those of the more conservative Gabriel. And that’s not to say that the Brazilian hasn’t been doing a commendable job filling in for the past couple of weeks, just that Bellerín himself is a completely different proposition who offers Arsenal so much more going forward, as he demonstrated when reigniting what had started off as a flat Arsenal display against Stoke.
In the lead-up to Theo Walcott’s equalizer, Bellerín made the sort of run that has been a staple of his game since he made the RB berth his own in January 2015 following Marko Arnautovic’s cowardly shove on Mathieu Debuchy. On Saturday, his run was spotted and picked out superbly by Alexis Sanchez, before he in turn set up Walcott.
The development of a number of mini partnerships within the Arsenal team have helped players bring the best out of one another this season. Much has already been written about the combinations Arsenal have experimented with in central midfield, the developing simbiosis and codependency of Mesut Özil and Alexis up front, and the recent increase in focus on building play down the left flank during Bellerín’s absence.
Saturday’s comeback owed a lot to the linkup between Bellerín and Walcott. This partnership is on the way to becoming another valuable asset for Arsenal in breaking down increasingly stubborn opposition defences. The width and range of deliveries offered by Bellerín frees up Walcott to take up more dangerous goalscoring positions. As such, Theo looked more threatening against Stoke than he had done against West Ham and Basel, given that Arsenal flipped focus to the left flank in Bellerín’s absence.
Following a spell of looking to build through the middle, Bellerín’s run and Alexis’ quick switch of play caught the Stoke defence flat-footed and off balance. They’d overcompensated to afford themselves maximum protection against Özil and the again impressive Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, which would have been salvageable for them with Gabriel as Arsenal’s RB, but was less so following the reintroduction of Bellerín.
Bellerín is a complete threat and offers a different dimension to Arsenal’s attacking play. He has provided 12 assists since his debut, in performances typified by energy, intelligence, and stretching the opposition with his increasingly expansive game
In addition to providing width with his overlapping runs, he’s also added intelligent ‘underlapping’ runs to his game this season, whereby he makes himself available inside his winger rather than outside. This makes life harder for opposition players tasked with tracking his movements. He’s shown that he’s capable of getting to the byline and putting in a cross across the six-yard box, cutting it back, to the edge of the box, and even stepping inside himself onto and shooting as he did to open the scoring in the 4-1 win over Liverpool in 2014/15. This variety of end product keeps opposition CBs and central midfielders more honest in the positions they take up when Bellerín has the ball in wide areas. His pace is also an asset both for and against the counterattack, as he demonstrated when setting up Özil in the 2-0 win over Bayern Munich last season, and also in getting back to make recovering tackles as he did in the 3-0 win over Chelsea this September. He’s a boy that can do anything.
The extent of his defensive improvement makes you sometimes forget that he’s still only just 21 years old. He has shown exceptional mental strength in coming back from being thrown into two shambolic set-ups in Dortmund and Stoke in high profile defeats in 2014/15 and gone from strength to strength since.
In his first full season, even in matches where he initially struggled, he grew into the game. While some cite Douglas Costa catching him square and bettering him a couple of times in the first half of the home win over Bayern Munich, the score remained 0-0 at half time. After the break, Bellerín had the measure of his man and kept him quiet. He then had the audacity and presence of mind to rob a slack pass intended for Philip Lahm before calmly square for Özil to make it an improbable 2-0 in stoppage time. It takes a special kind of fortitude to do that against the very best sides.
He coped superbly under a different kind of pressure in the North London Derby in March, coming up with two very different assists as 10-man Arsenal survived with a draw. The weight and angle on his drilled ball for Aaron Ramsey’s flicked opener was completely at odds with the delicate slide-rule pass for the late Alexis equalizer. Both were equally important contributions.
He is a special player. He was voted into the 2015/16 PFA Team of the Season by his peers, selected for Spain’s squad for Euro 2016, and his performances caught the eye of both Barcelona and Manchester City, only for the player to instead choose to sign a new long-term extension at Arsenal. He’s already a key player for Arsenal and will hopefully stay that way for a long time.