Ainsley Maitland-Niles has, by all accounts, looked an entirely different player since Mikel Arteta took charge. Tactical tweaks and improved concentration levels have contributed to a shift in approach from Arsenal fans, who rethought their previous clamours about Hector Bellerin being the club’s saviour and insisted the Spaniard no longer walked straight into the first-team.
Which is why it was met with swathes of aghast when the 24-year-old got the nod over the academy product for the crunch trip to face Chelsea on Tuesday night.
Having barely featured over the last year, Bellerin made his return to the starting lineup towards the tail end of Unai Emery’s tenure, but further injury setbacks meant his hotly-anticipated return was put on hold once more.
In the place of the suspended Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, not only did he play, but he led the side out.
Very much an adored figure at the club and by fans, Bellerin’s career in north London hasn’t been without criticism. In April 2017 he was lambasted by the traveling fans at Selhurst Park with chants of ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’, signalling the lowest point in his Gunners career.
Granted, those chants were a culmination of dreadful form by the whole team under Arsene Wenger, but nevertheless, they must have hurt.
So to see the right-back captain his side in one of the most battling clashes he’ll have ever partaken in, in turn guiding his teammates to an unlikely point, is hugely commendable. Not only that, but he embodied all the most pleasing elements of the side’s performance at Stamford Bridge.
On display there was grit, determination, fight and spirit in equal measures and, for a change, somebody in defence who wasn’t shouting at the backline just for the sake of it. Bellerin was marshalling his fellow defenders with purpose. No unnecessary barking of orders to improve his credibility to those watching on television, but actually commands and demands of his teammates to get in position, pick players up and maintain their defensive structure.
Yet, after 26 minutes, Arsenal were well and truly up against it. Even up until that point they were heavily under the cosh, struggling to get any grip on proceedings and getting caught out down Bellerin’s opposing flank by a combination of Callum Hudson-Odoi’s trickery and Bukayo Saka’s, forgivable, lack of defensive know-how.
There was an improvement in the display towards the latter end of the first half, but what truly turned the tide for Arsenal was what went on behind closed doors. Naturally, Arteta deserves a measure of credit for the manner in which he picked his players up for the second half, but as captain, Bellerin’s influence in the dressing room will not have passed by unnoticed.
On the pitch, what the Spaniard has above Maitland-Niles is awareness. He is actually a right-back.
As touched on, tactical tweaks has improved AMN’s game. Playing him as an almost ‘inverted full-back’ has been key, but such alterations to style and approach won’t be necessary with Bellerin back and fit.
He knows how to defend, he made that clear in west London, and his work rate is second to none. Pace is an obvious talent of his, and his link-up play in the final third is unquestionably better. Furthermore, prior to his injury what Bellerin had been beginning to nail down was his crossing, something Arsenal have lacked down the right-hand side for some time.
Always happy to score against these lot… But what truely made me happy, was everyone fighting for their lives on that pitch. Big well done to the team tonight #COYG pic.twitter.com/cYEt19HwUP
— Héctor Bellerín (@HectorBellerin) January 21, 2020
It was still surprising to seem him start as, having spent such a great deal of time out injured, he has been unable to regain full fitness. Which is especially pivotal in this new-look Arsenal team, where Arteta’s high energy style has had a clear effect on the players’ fitness levels, with 80% of the team found often blowing after 70 or so minutes.
Sure, sit deep and hit quickly was the game plan against the Blues, but the early red card meant the sheer amount of defending and extra covering was going to have a similar effect anyway. That was clear after 84 minutes, when Arsenal were unable to shift into position accordingly to cover Cesar Azpilicueta, seemingly tarnishing their hard work.
Had that had been the final result then, there would have been no complaints
Jan 2018: Hector Bellerin scores late equaliser for Arsenal in 2-2 draw with Chelsea
Jan 2020: Hector Bellerin scores late equaliser for Arsenal in 2-2 draw with Chelsea
Nothing changes, apart from the hairstyle. pic.twitter.com/oQJHQsSHUi
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) January 21, 2020
Casting aside what he adds on the pitch, his influence with those off it will be crucial towards finishing the season on a high note. Players and fans must be singing from the same hymn sheet, and taking into account the immense support at Stamford Bridge, Bellerin could be the key.
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