The significant blow of losing Hector Bellerin for around a month through injury was somewhat compensated with this week’s news - the Spaniard has signed a new long-term contract.
It’s easy to understand why he deserves a new deal. Since making his breakthrough two years ago, Bellerin has established himself as the Premier League’s most dependable right backs, being voted into the PFA Team of the Year for 2015/16. In an era where the physical and technical demands of a full back are extraordinary, he is the complete package.
Since being throw in at the deep end, making his debut away at Borussia Dortmund in September 2014, Bellerin’s improvement has been remarkable. It was immediately obvious that he possessed great speed and attacking dynamism, charging forward whenever possible to overlap our right winger. But his game has developed significantly over the last two years, both in attacking and defensive aspects.
Going forward, Bellerin isn’t just a speedster. He possesses impressive ball control and can dribble past opponents with trickery as well as pace. This season, only Theo Walcott and Alexis have beaten opponents more regularly. Interestingly, he doesn’t simply overlap, either. If Arsenal’s right winger is stationed wide on the touchline, stretching the play, Bellerin is entirely happy dribbling into more central areas, running towards goal.
Other full backs would panic in those situations, but Bellerin is comfortable in possession, as you’d expect from a Spanish footballer, and capable of making good decisions when approaching the final third.
Out wide, too, he doesn’t hang in hopeful crosses, and often attempts to pick out clever low passes or cut-backs to onrushing strikers.
His assist for Walcott’s goal in the 3-0 victory over Chelsea was a good example - a fine, composed sideways pass into a goalscoring position. Walcott, incidentally, could take up a centre-forward position because of the right-back's forward running. It’s notable that all three of Bellerin’s balls from a right-sided position are short passes rather than hopeful crosses from near the byline.
Equally, though, Bellerin has become a significantly better defender. This side of a full back’s game is often the last thing to develop properly in the modern game, and whereas Bellerin was sometimes uncertain positionally in his first few months, he’s now a fine defender.
It’s notable that he makes few tackles for a right back - 0.7 per game this season, on a par with Mesut Ozil as the lowest of Arsenal’s outfield regulars. The Spaniard's game is much more about intercepting - he makes 2.2 per game. He rarely goes to ground and concedes free-kicks very rarely.
Yet there’s the odd occasion when Bellerin’s tackling is vital, generally because of his speed. His challenge on Chelsea’s Pedro in the second half of the aforementioned 3-0 win over Chelsea was extraordinary, as was a similar challenge on Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele more recently. On each occasion, his speed allowed him to act as something of a sweeper in central positions, a rare quality from a full back.
It becomes clear, then, that Bellerin is not merely a full back. At various points he plays the role of winger, playmaker and sweeper too, as well as performing his basic duties effectively. This is an already brilliant all-round footballer who should continue to get even better.
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