Full Evening Standard article can be found here
Hector Bellerin may be the quickest player in the Arsenal squad but the speed of his rise to prominence has still taken many by surprise.
The 20-year-old Spaniard is expected to start against Liverpool at Emirates Stadium this evening having seemingly defied his inexperience and the presence of Mathieu Debuchy to become manager Arsene Wenger’s first-choice right-back.
Wenger identified the position as an area to strengthen last summer, when he spent £10million to acquire Debuchy from Newcastle as he sought to find another proven Premier League option after Bacary Sagna departed for Manchester City.
Sagna was a permanent fixture in Arsenal’s defence for many years and replacing him could have proved troublesome, especially when Debuchy underwent ankle surgery in September and then a shoulder operation in January which sidelined him for five months of the campaign.
Yet Bellerin thrived when called upon, despite just eight appearances on loan at Watford and one Capital One Cup outing as a substitute for Arsenal to draw on. Next month marks the first anniversary of his debut for the club, a Champions League clash at Borussia Dortmund which the Gunners lost 2-0.
“It was like a dream for me,” Bellerin told Standard Sport.
“When I saw my name written on the board that I was going to start, for me to make my professional debut for Arsenal at the Westfalenstadion against Dortmund in the Champions League, it couldn’t get any better than that.
“The team didn’t have a great performance or result but the fact that I played my first game in what was one of the hardest fixtures in Europe, I got that weight off my shoulders. I thought if I’ve played there, I should be able to play any other type of game.
“That took a lot of pressure off and although the result wasn’t great, for me it was a dream come true. There were loads of emotions — nerves, pressure — but also joy to see where I had come from and to get to that point. You never know — you could play one game and never play again but for me it was a great experience.
“Afterwards, I got help from family, players and everyone at the club. And the boss gave me another opportunity to play and then another one and another. That showed that he had faith in me and it pushed me to progress that we didn’t have the best of performances. We needed to bounce back as a team and the fact everyone took that as something to learn from helped me and helped the whole team.”
Bellerin left Barcelona for London as a 16 year old in 2011. He spent the intervening period studiously watching other full-backs — having grown up playing as a winger — perhaps explaining how he has rapidly matured despite making just 30 appearances for the club to date.
“Looking at other players is the ‘invisible training’,” he said. “It is not just training every day and playing matches, you have to watch how other people play. Having Bacary Sagna as a mentor was great for me because he is probably one of the best full-backs of our time in the Premier League. I learned a lot from him.
“But not just him, people like Pablo Zabaleta at City and Dani Alves at Barcelona — you can always get stuff from them. You see things they do wrong and so you don’t do them and other things they do well, you learn from. The analysis of other players is very important if you want to succeed.
“Chances most of the time come through injuries and Mathieu was very unlucky last year because he was looking really good at the beginning of the season.
“He is such a nice guy — we have a very good relationship and the fact we don’t know who is going to get picked is really good for both of us because we train really hard every day and that makes us grow as players.”
Bellerin became a mainstay in an Arsenal team that enjoyed a fine second half to last season which saw them qualify automatically for the Champions League, retain the FA Cup and raise expectations about a genuine title challenge this year.
“When you come through at a team like Arsenal as a young player and you are in the Under-21s and then you finally get there into the first team with so many superstars, it is a shock,” he said. “But then everyone treats you like one more player, it was great. They have always treated me like that since the first day.
“When I started playing, we got so many wins and we were playing so well, it got the team together. I am very proud and happy to be part of the team. But we have to push on now.”
Bellerin defended his sprint challenge record — a pre-season annual contest among the Arsenal squad in which players test themselves over a 40-metre course — after beating Theo Walcott for the second year running.
“A lot of people last year were saying, ‘I can’t believe Hector is quicker than Theo’ but this year I beat him again and I think he finally accepted it!” said Bellerin.
Bellerin’s progress shows no sign of slowing.
Hector Bellerin was speaking at the Call of Duty: Black Ops III Beta launch on PlayStation 4. Pre-order Call of Duty: Black Ops III now. #BO3Beta