Hector Bellerin has struggled since returning to the Arsenal first team. It is fair to admit that the Spaniard might not fit Mikel Arteta’s plans for the right-back position.
Mikel Arteta has implemented a very specific formation since he arrived at Arsenal. Principally a 4-2-3-1 shape, the system shifts in certain areas: the left-winger drifts inside; the left-back pushes very high up the pitch; the left-sided central midfielder moves wide and deep; the right-back tucks in centrally.
That is a very simplified description of what is a tactically advanced and well-defined shape, but what it serves to prove is that each role has a very specific set of responsibilities and only certain types of players can perform those responsibilities. For instance, not every left-back in the world could execute in the manner that Arteta requires.
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Hector Bellerin is beginning to experience that. The Spaniard returned to the starting XI after a hamstring tear in late-January. Since that time, he has struggled to gain full fitness, dealing with a torn groin that he has taken painkillers to play through. But even in spite of his injury troubles, there are still fractious elements between his skill set and the role that Arteta asks him to play, and they lead to questioning whether Bellerin truly fits the system.
In the Arteta right-back role, Bellerin is tasked with being a facilitator in possession. He is expected to drift into central areas, receive the ball on the half-turn, and then shuttle passes into advanced areas. This greats awareness, spatial intelligence, vision, and technical skill. Sometimes, Bellerin’s touch and distribution can be a little loose and he struggles to keep hold of possession in tighter areas.
Contrast, for example, his comfort and composure on the ball to Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who excelled in Arteta’s adopted right-back role. Maitland-Niles’ experience as a central midfielder aided his play enormously and he took up spaces and conducted actions that he was extremely familiar with. For Bellerin, this is new, different, and sometimes looks a little awkward.
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It also starves him of his best qualities. The Spaniard is superb when he can bomb forward and make overlapping runs, exploiting his athleticism and speed in an offensive manner. But Arteta has significantly curtailed the attacking side of the right-back position, instead lending it to the left-back and asking the right-back to offer defensive balance and structure.
Now, this could change with personnel. Bukayo Saka, a natural winger, has been manning the left-back position. The return of Kieran Tierney might free up Arteta to use more orthodox full-back roles. Maybe Bellerin is then afforded that same offensive license that he broke onto the scene with as a fresh-faced, fresh-legged teenager.
But while patience is vital and there is no reason to jump to conclusions just yet, Arteta’s system — and the role of the right-back within that system — and Bellerin’s skill set are not entirely compatible. It is fair to question what this might mean for the future of the position.