Krystian Bielik’s loan spell at Birmingham City was a positive experience for the talented Poland youth international, who at 19, is good enough to feature on a weekly basis in England’s second tier.
The versatile teenager, who has been converted to a centre-back since joining Arsenal from Legia Warsaw in 2015 for £2.5m, has answered a range of questions during an interview conducted by a Polish journalist ahead of an eventful summer where he’ll be eager to make his mark, whenever he does feature.
When questioned about how he’d rate his first season of first-team football in England, Bielik said: “I have seen a lot of positive opinions, which motivates me to work harder. When someone criticises you, it gets to your head and you start asking questions about what’s going wrong.
“I spent the first half of the season in the Arsenal U-23s and the second half with Birmingham. I played 10 matches in the Championship and I didn’t drop below a certain level.
“I either played very well, good or satisfactory, but without any surprises. It’s good that I started playing. At Legia I got a taste of senior football, which I later forgot in London. It was nice to return to real, professional football and show that I haven’t disappeared.”
On whether his experiences at youth level, especially in the UEFA Youth League competition benefited him, Bielik was keen to stress how training with the first-team helped him build confidence, to the point where he was named u23s captain by Steve Gatting.
“Many said that I didn’t make progress or that I regressed. Honestly, the English U-23 League is a completely different level to the reserves or youth teams in Poland. There’s no comparison in any way.
“Training with the first team everyday helped me a lot. Thanks to that I went to the U-23 games with more confidence and it turned out that I was ready.”
One of Bielik’s main strengths is his ability to play out from the back, where he is comfortable in possession and doesn’t just play safe passes. In itself it’s impressive given his age and relative inexperience in high pressure situations.
Bielik was humble and honest in his assessment of his areas for improvement over time, revealing he is keen to continue improving defensively as he earns more experience.
“I still think that centre-back is a new position for me, although I play there regularly.”
Having left Poland as a defensive minded midfielder, he referred to his past experience in a natural position and has since utilised this to good effect in England.
“That ability to play out from the back stayed with me. At Górnik Konin I was a striker, at Lech an offensive midfielder, and I kept being pushed back until I ended up as a defensive midfielder in Legia. Sometimes I watch Ekstraklasa or Championship matches and I notice that the center backs either don’t notice a pass between the lines or are scared to play it.”
The youngster then used an Arsenal-specific example to illustrate his point, saying, “For me it’s a habit – I get the ball and I instantly look to play it forward. I want to make a difference with my pass. I know that if I play with Santi Cazorla and I give a good, strong ball between the lines, he’ll receive it on the turn and create a lot of space for us.
“Sometimes it gets tight and there’s no sense in complicating things, but I always look for the midfielders or forwards first. Or – when the strikers drop back – I let myself dribble out from the back. I love doing that.”
During the early stages of his career in England, the talented teenager revealed he was shocked by the tempo and level of intensity in England, but training regularly with the first-team meant he quickly relished the challenge and was keen to develop quickly.
“Tempo, accuracy, the pitch like a carpet, everything. Every Premier League club is magic. It’s a must see. Go, record and play back what players at this level are capable of. I went to Arsenal after the holiday season.
“Towards the end at Legia I did not train for two weeks. I informed the club that Arsenal was a great chance for me and that I did not want to risk any injury. Then there were holidays,” Bielik explained.
“I went to London in such a state that I had to work hard for three or four weeks. I wanted to avoid injury but I didn’t know the gap would be so big. To be clear – I was not overweight, but I felt bad. The day after that kind of running I would feel dead. After three weeks, however, I returned to form.
“I remember the first training. Francis Coquelin immediately made me aware of his presence. I tried to push around a bit and instantly got a slide tackle to my legs. He wanted to show that I shouldn’t mess about, just play my football. But it’s normal.
“Today I have a great relationship with everyone. That is, I don’t expect to be going out to dinner with Alexis Sanchez, but everyone asks how I’m doing. At the beginning there was also [compatriot] Wojciech Szczęsny…”
The journalist mentioned Tomas Rosicky as one of the first-team players that helped him build confidence, especially through the tough times when it could’ve been easy to get demotivated.
“It’s good that you mention that. I had the best relationship with Tomas and Jack Wilshere. Jack always chose me first for a game of football tennis and Tomas helped by talking to me. After a worse training he would always take me to the side and explain that I should not worry, because tomorrow will be better.
“Maybe it’s nothing, but when someone so experienced as himself comes out and shows that kind of initiative, it helps a lot. Tomas regularly watched our U-23 matches. They were usually on a very good level but he always found some minor mistakes”
Rosicky: “Look, it’s all cool, but do you remember the situation from the second half?”
Rosicky: “We will do it in training. Watch how Santi or Ramsey behave in such situations.”
“Rosicky was a fantastic man. At Birmingham, that person was Tomasz Kuszczak.
Training on a regular basis with players like Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sánchez is often seen as a fantasy for youngsters, but Bielik revealed he adapted well to the challenge and was able to hold his own at times too.
“Back then I was still a defensive midfielder, so I had more contact with midfielders than strikers. Olivier? I don’t know if you’ll find a defender who is stronger than him. Bull. When he shields the balls, it’s like playing against a wall, the way he behaves when he receives a hard ball along the ground on his stronger foot, invaluable experience.
“But I didn’t always lose all the duels. Often I would win or Olivier would get annoyed that I kicked him or would tell me to control myself. But all in good faith.”
Having also received an offer from Bundesliga side Hamburg, he was quizzed on what persuaded him to join Arsenal instead, not least given the higher likelihood that he would have featured for their senior side at some stage since his arrival by now.
“Hamburg is not Arsenal, it’s not managed by Wenger and they don’t have Santi Cazorla playing in the middle. Whenever someone asks me who the best player at Arsenal is, I always say Santi.”
His high praise for the experienced Spaniard may seem surprising to many, not least in comparison to exciting players like Alexis. However, the Polish youngster had more training ground stories to reveal about the creative genius.
“Dear God, he’s magic. When you are on a team with Santi then you don’t lose, the ball is always moving. You can play anything with him. Like a toy.
“And at the same time he’s a cool guy. He kept joking around with me. After training he would kick the ball at my shin and then tell me that I’m wooden.”
On whether he feels as though there has been an opportunity for him to earn Premier League minutes since his arrival two-and-a-half years ago, he said:
“In the back of my head I was hoping that Wenger will trust me. I have been fighting for that trust for three years. It’s tough, but I heard from the boss that he has never seen a center back as technically-gifted as me.
“I still lack experience. It is no secret that it would be nice to play a bit more in the Championship. I know that I have convinced the clubs here.
“I’ve also heard about the Bundesliga. But most importantly I want to play as many games as possible next season. If that happens, I’ll come back ready to compete for a place in the team.
“Now it all depends on how much I play at the Euro (U-21). If I play – let’s say – three matches, I’ll probably have time off and I’ll be able to return to Arsenal around July 13th. Otherwise maybe I will be back sooner and I will go to the Australian tour with Arsenal.
“The coach wants me to be rested and one hundred percent ready. Some clubs have decided that they want me, but we are waiting for the papers or a phone call: “We are sure, we want Krystian for next season.”
The ambitious youngster will be hoping to continue impressing and earn more regular minutes of competitive football once next season begins, before aiming for a first-team breakthrough in the near future under Arsene Wenger.