Héctor Bellerín making his mark at Arsenal after unorthodox journey to the top
Héctor Bellerín had seen the space, the opening, the opportunity. So had, too, Tomas Rosicky. Benfica had been so focused on retaining a compact 4-4-2 shape to restrict Arsenal’s renown passing game on the outskirts of the penalty area that, urged on by the meticulous Jorge Jesus, they had failed to notice the ground Bellerín had seamlessly covered.
It had not been a first-half that would live long in the memory. Jorge Jesus’ side had applied a system intended to thwart Arsenal’s passing game, to interrupt their rhythm, their flow and flair. Arsenal had carved out the most attractive chances of this Emirates Cup encounter in August of last year, in the ascendancy through goals from Yaya Sanogo, the Frenchman’s first in English football, and Joel Campbell, the Costa Rican who had impressed in the World Cup of that summer.
Bellerín’s inclusion in Arsene Wenger’s plans for the Emirates Cup had hardly dawned as consternation. For, the pre-season competition is often regarded as a platform to assess and, at times, enjoy the club’s up and coming talent, the likes of Yaya Sanogo, Joel Campbell and Damían Martinez, the highly regarded Argentinian goalkeeper. Bellerín had already acquired considerable pedigree within the club and its supporters, thanks mostly to his schooling at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy. One which he would only further enhance.
The description will not quite do the incursion justice, but here goes: Rosicky cut in from the left, close to the half-way line, and swept a sumptuous cross-field pass into Bellerín’s path, received delightfully by the Catalan with a sanguine jut of the chest. The Spaniard fizzed the ball into Campbell who returned the favour, Bellerín steadying the ball on his the laces of his left bright Orange Mizuno boots and turning 180 degrees to lose, and simultaneously bewilder, Benfica’s Eliseu, drawing applause and a flurry of high-pitched compliments.
Perhaps it would be expected that the Spaniard stopped there, perhaps delivering a cross to Sanago, who was free in acres of space, or playing it simple to Rosicky nearby. He did not.
If anything, the run which Bellerín would embark on illustrated his potential and that he still has a lot to learn. Observing the space before him, the 19-year-old bucaneered on, nimbly turning away from Sidnei, slipping beyond Eduardo Salvio and leaving a cluster of Benfica players in his wake. And then his progress was brusquely halted, Ruben Amorim intercepting the ball as Bellerín stormed into the penalty area. Perhaps, to quote the famous saying, Bellerín bit more than he could chew.
On Sunday, he impressed yet again, this time registering his maiden Premier League goal in the 5-0 rout over Aston Villa with an accomplished finish. The 19-year-old heralded it as a “fantastic feeling” – deserved given that he turned in an individual performance of such gusto, defensive solidity and an insatiable desire to get forward at each and every viable opportunity.
It has been a wonderful season for the youngster, establishing himself firmly into Wenger’s plans.
Bellerín was convinced that he would one day make the grade at Arsenal, thanks largely to a pledge made by Wenger. The 19-year-old quit La Masia aged 16, believing Arsenal provided a much more accessible path to first-team football.
Wenger’s plan was simple, a three-tier strategy. It outlined that Bellerín would spend a season with the Under-18s, another with the Reserves and a third in the senior team, provided he met the demands necessary. For Bellerín, it was a no-brainer.
“I’d been at Barcelona all my life so it was very difficult,” the ambitious youngster explained to Spanish TV programme Punto Pelota. “But after evaluating things I decided to join Arsenal. When you want to be a professional you have to look to make your way. And I believe the right path for me was to choose Arsenal.
“We met Mr Wenger and it went so well. When there is a team that guarantees you can play in the first team and above all in the Premier League, then it is very difficult to say no.”
Bellerín, though, has had to bide his time. Prior to this season, the 19-year-old had made merely a solitary appearance for Arsenal, as an extra-time substitute in last season’s Capital One Cup victory over West Brom. A loan spell with Watford followed, his time at Vickarage Road rendered underwhelming by stern competition in the unwavering form of Scottish international wing-back Ikechi Anya.
The turning point, perhaps, dawned in the shape of Arsenal’s 2-0 away defeat earlier in the season to Borussia Dortmund. Circumstances had conspired to thrust Bellerín into the spotlight. Carl Jenkinson had been sent out on loan to West Ham United. Mathieu Debuchy had succumbed to a sprained ankle. Calum Chambers had been seized by a bout of tonsillitis. The Catalan struggled to contain Dortmund’s vibrant attacking play at the Signal Iduna Park but has only built on the steep learning curve from that day.
On Sunday afternoon, as the Emirates bathed in the satisfaction of four goals to see off an insipid Aston Villa side, Bellerín struck, culminating an sterling individual display with a fine finish, sweeping the ball expertly beyond Brad Guzan, indictive of the fact that Bellerín is making his mark at Arsenal after an unorthodox journey to the top.