Hector Bellerin hasn’t quite turned into the excellent full back we all thought he could be.
Expecting any player to be world class by the age of 22 is setting the bar too high, but when I think back to how well Bellerin performed during the 2014/15 season, it really felt like the sky was the limit for him.
His first team career started nervously, but once he settled down and found form, there were few teams who could live him. He was a flyer down that right hand side, knocking the ball past opponents going forward and making forty yard recovery runs going the other way. Pace was his strongest and most attractive attribute, but he was useful in the final third, too. He set-up goals with drilled crosses and clever through passes, and even chipped in with a few himself.
Watching Bellerin now, it feels like some of the adventure has gone out of his play.
That willingness to take people on, knowing his speed would allow him to get the better of them, has gradually disappeared. Even when playing a more offensive role as a wing-back, you rarely see him carry the ball forward at pace anymore.
His work off the ball remains at a high standard. He’s always there to receive a pass out wide and help out his teammates. Yet, the end product which looked so promising as a teenager has now become frustratingly conservative. His crosses are either under-hit or too floaty, and his passes are sideways or backwards.
This, in part, is due to what Arsene Wenger wants from his full-backs. He wants his wide players to play high and keep the width. They act as a “wall” for the central players to play off, rather than be attacking outlets themselves. Nonetheless, Bellerin gives the impression of someone playing within themselves. It’s a frustrating feeling knowing he could do more but, for whatever reason, he hasn’t been.
His declining form at Arsenal hasn’t gone unnoticed. He was a part of Spain’s squad for the European Championships in 2016, but since then, has yet to win a single first team cap. He was a regular in the Spain u21 side that reached the u21 European Championship final last summer, but Julen Lopetegui seems to prefer other options for the senior team. It’s a concern that while first choice right back Dani Carvajal has been injured, it’s not Bellerin filling the void, but 21-year-old Real Sociedad right back, Alvaro Oriozola.
So, where is it going wrong for him?
It could be that he doesn’t see his future at Arsenal. Despite his public commitments to the club, there was very strong interest from Barcelona in the summer. Arsenal made it clear that Bellerin wasn’t for sale, and you have to wonder if he was totally okay with that decision. The step-up in quality might have been what he needed to take his game to another level. He wouldn’t be the first player to stagnate at Arsenal.
You’d think that the wing-back role would be ideal for him, but he’s yet to make the position his own. It could be that role is highlighting the weaknesses in his game. He may be struggling with the greater attacking demands and finding less space to be effective. As a traditional full back, he could gallop into space from deep. As a wing-back, he’s a far more obvious threat, and the opposition react accordingly. Nonetheless, we haven’t seen him the best of him there, otherwise the debate about whether he or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should play wouldn’t have existed.
Bellerin is still a young player with time to improve. There are no causes for alarm just yet, and he will have plenty of good performances in an Arsenal shirt this season. It might help if he had some strong competition to push him to greater heights. Mathieu Debuchy certainly isn’t providing it, and it might be too much to ask 17-year-old Reiss Nelson to do it as well. At the moment, even if his form reaches new lows, his position in the starting eleven is safe.
That may be where the difference is. As a teenager, Bellerin was eager to make an impression. Now, as a first team regular, he doesn’t have the same drive. He remains a good player, but that’s all he is right now.
There’s enough there to suggest he could be better, and we want to see that happen at Arsenal, not else where.