After turning 23 on Monday, Hector Bellerin still has a few years left before he’s truly entered his prime – the period of his career where the utmost consistency is expected and there will be inevitable discussions over whether he belongs in the bracket of world-class.
But by that point, the Spaniard should be something close to the total package, only adding extra experience to the qualities he’s already acquired, and while Bellerin remains an incredibly promising player, there are still clear weaknesses to his game.
The most significant of those are undoubtedly defensively, a typical consequence of former wingers who are converted into full-backs. Going forward, Bellerin’s natural talent is obvious – not only in terms of the speed in which he can join the attack to overlap, but also through the high level of technical quality you’d expect from a La Masia product. Sure, his output can be improved upon, finding two goals and one assist in the Premier League this season, but that will come with time. His confidence isn’t exactly at a career high either, such has been the humbling effect of another disappointing campaign for the north London club.
But for Bellerin to move into the realms of truly world-class over the next few years, his development must follow a similar path to Ashley Cole’s. It’s often forgotten that the former England man was once a forward in Arsenal’s academy setup, and while he earned praise during his first season in the first team for the dynamism, penetration and threat he offered going forward, it was only when he managed to combine it with an increasing consistency in defence he really became comparable with the likes of Paolo Maldini and Roberto Carlos.
At his peak, Cole was a full-back who could do it all going forwards and backwards, and that’s exactly what Bellerin should be aiming for as well.
Just a few weeks ago though, Lee Dixon dispelled one of the biggest myths behind the Invincibles and the end of Arsene Wenger’s most successful era at Arsenal. During the club’s AGM meeting, he told supporters that Le Prof wasn’t responsible for making Cole a world-class defender; that honour truly belonged to Tony Adams.
Of course, most Gunners fans wouldn’t be particularly surprised by this. Wenger inherited an iconic defence when he first arrived at Arsenal and the other most successful defender of his tenure was snatched from Tottenham Hotspur in Sol Campbell.
When you look the rest of Wenger’s record with both signing defenders and developing them, there aren’t a huge amount of success stories. Kolo Toure and Laurent Koscielny perhaps fall into that bracket, but neither have quite reached the level of world-class. After that, you’re left with the likes of Shkodran Mustafi, Thomas Vermaelen, Philippe Senderos, Johan Djourou and Calum Chambers – they all impressed after joining the club at relatively young age, but never really progressed from that point.
Admittedly, we’re mostly talking about centre-halves rather than full-backs, and Wenger does boast a much better track record there. Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna both earned moves to Manchester City after consistently impressing for Arsenal, Lauren was a key part of the Invincibles side and Kieran Gibbs was always a decent option for the north Londoners when not blighted by injury.
But the question remains; how many of them were really world-class? If any of them were, perhaps excepting Sagna, it wasn’t because they could defend as well as they could attack.
Make no mistake, this isn’t another stick to beat Wenger with amid a period in which the majority of public opinion appears to be against him. He’s hardly the only manager in world football to focus more on attacking verve than defensive structure, and if anything his vision of full-backs becoming ultimately offensive-minded players has only become truer since he selected a former midfielder, Lauren, and forward, Cole, on either defensive flank of his Invincibles side.
But the problem now is the lack of role models Bellerin has to learn from. Cole had Adams, one of the toughest and most tactically astute defenders of his era, as well as a seasoned Martin Keown. Bellerin, at best, has Koscielny to lean on. The Frenchman, for all his qualities, just isn’t the same calibre of out-and-out, anticipatory, battling defender, and one high-profile figure behind the scenes at Arsenal recently lamented that he ‘isn’t reliable as he should be’.
Even if Wenger’s approach of letting the art of defending be passed down from player-to-player rather than coach-to-player is an acceptable one, the level of nous has declined with practically every defence he’s constructed over the last 20 years.
Which all begs the question of where Bellerin – who Transfermarkt value at £31.5million – could receive that kind of education to balance out his game, and earlier this week the right-back was fittingly linked with a move to Manchester United. While there is a worrying lack of positivity around Old Trafford at the minute, and while their squad also lacks those stalwart type figures to impart defensive wisdom onto him, Jose Mourinho is the perfect manager to address those deficiencies in his game.