Slumping to a cheap 1-0 defeat to Leicester this past weekend was disappointing enough for Arsenal, but it was made worse by the manner in which they let things slip away.
The Gunners looked unusually flat and bereft of any creative sting, something they’d seemingly rediscovered under the tutelage of Mikel Arteta.
It’s not a major red flag, though. There was bound to be a blip after such a positive start for Arteta’s side this season, and a lacklustre performance like this is better to come earlier in the season so he can work on it with his players.
For the most part, Arsenal have looked refreshed and much improved since the Spaniard took charge. There’s an identity and a desire to play dominant football, and the players have responded well and stepped up to the new challenge.
Hector Bellerin in particular has stood out in the early stages of the season, which is music to the ears of Arsenal fans. Injury looked to have completely derailed his career at Arsenal as he failed to find form under Unai Emery and then struggled to nail down a place upon Arteta’s arrival. There were even reports that he could leave in summer, but the Spanish full back and fashionista has stuck around, proven his worth and is – like a prime Eric Bischoff – back and better than ever.
Well, kind of.
Three assists from nine games so far this season is an improvement from the two he managed throughout a disappointing 2019/20 campaign. He’s earned the trust of Arteta through his passionate and assured performances, and this newfound confidence could be key to Arsenal’s fortunes this season, considering the influence Bellerin has on the squad as a leader.
It hasn’t always been this straightforward, though, and Bellerin’s dip in form slipped under the radar a long time. Guilty of complacency amid a lack of confidence that was rife among Arsenal’s squad under Emery, he coasted along after returning from his ACL injury – his fan favourite status perhaps a key reason why he was exempt from underperforming criticism.
Sure, it’s easy to love him due to his care for social issues, obscenely cool fashion sense and just as cool Spanish/north London accent, but that would be letting him off the hook. And he’s too talented to be let off the hook.
In fairness to Bellerin, suffering and recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury is not easy. It can affect the way a footballer players for the rest of their career and – in some cases – completely end a career.
He was hit with the injury in January 2019, but ongoing complications then ruled him out of the beginning of the 2019/20 season. Consider that he was viewed as one of the most exciting young full backs in Europe at one time – and still having the ability to back up this reputation – it makes finding fitness much more challenging, even more so in a struggling side.
Recovering from an injury isn’t just waiting for time to pass and everything being better, it requires building up match sharpness once more, and overcoming the mental block that the injury creates. Bellerin being thrown back into an Arsenal in turmoil under Emery in late 2019 did nothing to aid that recovery and set the tone for a period of inconsistency and lack of belief.
The new demands of Arteta’s management saw Bellerin lose his spot in the side and subsequently have to fight for his place – for the first time since he became a regular first team player for the club. It worked, though, with the 25-year-old now appearing hungrier for success. With his confidence high, he’s looking a lot sharper and his famed burst of pace does appear to still exist.
There’s a long season ahead and Arsenal – as always – will be subject to the usual scrutiny and pressure from the club’s fanbase, as well as interested onlookers. Bellerin is the kind of character to thrive on pressure, though, and with injury now hopefully behind him, he can continue working with Arteta to bed in the boss’ philosophy and outlook on the game.
On his day, Bellerin can lay claim to be one of the better Premier League full-backs, and we all know how important that role is in the modern game.
There’s a lot of work ahead, and Bellerin must ensure that his likability and ventures outside of football don’t distract him from delivering the goods on the field. If he maintains a high level, Arsenal will undoubtedly continue on an upward trajectory, and build towards reclaiming a place in the Champions League.