How do you choose the name that adorns your Arsenal shirt?
As a kid, I remember it all being about the star of the day, so I usually had Bergkamp, or perhaps Henry. This continued through my teenage years, as Fabregas became flavour of the month. And then I had my fingers burned – my 125th anniversary shirt was smeared with ‘van Persie’.
Since then, I’ve changed tack. Now I look for a player who has come through our academy, started to prove themselves, but not yet become a fully-fledged star.
Wilshere, Gibbs and Ramsey have all been worthy recipients of my favour in that regard. And while he wasn’t exactly a former academy player, I also chose Koscielny back in the “Purple Reign” season, when many were yet to rate him.
A Bellerin shaped hole
Of course, the most recent graduate from Hale End is notable by his omission. Truth be told, my nervousness around one Hector Bellerin has stemmed as much from the Fabregas departure as the van Persie one.
When you’ve prised a rough diamond from Catalan clutches at a tender age, and then polished it till your hair is silvery grey, it hits you that bit harder when they then depart. And for all Bellerin’s assurances that he loves London, he loves Arsenal, and he cannot see himself anywhere else, there’s nothing quite like the sound of ink slicking across the dotted line on a freshly minted contract.
The more you love someone, the more it hurts when they leave you. I never want to see Hector Bellerin leave Arsenal Football Club.
Obviously, he’s great at football, but there’s also my guilty pleasure to indulge. I used to think the best thing about Wojciech Szczesny was his incredible ‘Polish Cockney’ fusion accent, and Hector’s ‘Spanish Cockney’ is doing a decent job of filling the void. Does anything say “I’m Arsenal through and through” like picking up the local lingo?
But back to the football.
Dissecting the heart
So why do we love ‘the boy who can do anything’ quite so much? It’s certainly not because of his dress sense! The answer was clear for all to see in last weekend’s game against Manchester United.
It’s obviously a bit nuts to suggest that we don’t know how good Bellerin is. If you’re anything like me, your mates are sick and tired of hearing about “the undisputed best right back in the league.” Equally I do think we’ve become a little bit spoilt, starting to take his quality for granted.
I don’t think Carl Jenkinson played badly last weekend. Compared to Monreal, certainly, he had a worldie, and our right hand side felt distinctly more secure than our left. He was, however, understandably a bit more cautious in attack than we’ve come to expect from Hector.
Wenger’s sides have always relied on a balanced pair of fullbacks. This typically means one’s expected to bomb forward while the other sits.
In the 2016 vintage, it’s patently obvious that Bellerin is tasked with overloading our right wing. Meanwhile Nacho tucks in alongside Koscielny and Mustafi. Without the younger Spaniard, though, this balance was upset. Nacho continued to sit tight, but with Jenkinson often doing the same, it left us without the extra man in attack. Exacerbated by a non-functioning midfield pairing, this meant that we looked toothless in attack.
If you watched the game on Sky, you probably became increasingly irritated by the frequency with which Gary Neville criticised Walcott for not staying wide (in spite of him filling a void left at centre forward by Alexis). Thing is, that’s exactly how we’ve been playing this season to great effect.
Fluidity in motion
In normal circumstances, when Alexis pulls deep (in this case, necessitated by the lack of service from Elneny and Coquelin in the centre, and Ramsey as a wide playmaker) Walcott exploits the space left by his Chilean strike partner, and Bellerin pushes forwards to create the width.
However, without Hector stretching the play, this tactic simply did not work. We found ourselves unable to create. Moreover, we found ourselves unable even to retain the ball without the extra man in the attacking third. Watching, I felt a definite sense of déjà vu. We looked much more like the side of circa 2013-14, when Bacary Sagna was essentially a dead end with the ball. Back when we spent significant portions of each game passing the ball in a U-shape around our back four.
No, Hector Bellerin has become critical to ‘the Arsenal way’ class of 2016-17.
We returned from the international break to news that Hector would be missing four weeks of football, as a result of Danny Rose’s thuggery. We often talk about how your season can be defined by how you cope when your key players get injured. Well, arguably Bellerin is one of the most important, certainly on recent evidence. Crunch time.
The blow was softened, if not in the immediate term then at least in the longer term, by the announcement that our young Spaniard had signed a new contract. The deal is rumoured to be a whopping six-and-a-half years long, taking him to the summer of 2023. Phwoar. Somewhat depressingly, I’ll have passed the dreaded three-oh birthday by then, and he’ll still only be 28!
It just goes to show the importance of selecting the crème de la crème of young talent (even if their accent doesn’t match their Spanish passport) rather than stockpiling any old, young talent. It’s about choosing the right academy graduates who really raise the level of your team. (Ones who don’t depart the Champions League with a game to spare.) And it’s about tying them into the longest deal you can convince them to sign.
Put simply, it’s the difference between having Hector Bellerin, and having Kyle Walker. And it’s the difference between being a top club like Arsenal, and a small time club like crunch-playoff-for-Europa-League Tottenham Hotspur.
Excuse me now, I’m off to laugh until I cry.