The Remarkable Rise of Hector Bellerin

James McNicholas@@jamesmcnicholasFeatured ColumnistJune 1, 2016

Arsenal's Hector Bellerin controls the ball during the English FA Cup third round soccer match between Arsenal and Sunderland at the Emirates stadium in London, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016 . (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Alastair Grant/Associated Press

Hector Bellerin’s career is on a startlingly steep upward trajectory. In the last two years, he has risen from Arsenal’s academy side to become a regular in the first team.

This summer, Bellerin’s extraordinary rise has hit new heights. After being selected in the Professional Footballers' Association Team of the Year for 2015/16, he has now been named as a late addition to Spain’s Euro 2016 squad. He recently made his full debut for the senior national side, playing 90 minutes in a 3-1 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The question for Arsenal fans is: Where will Bellerin’s meteoric ascent take him? Will he remain in north London, or is it inevitable that he’ll return to his native Barcelona?

SCHRUNS, AUSTRIA - MAY 30:  Hector Bellerin of Spain looks on during a training session on May 30, 2016 in Schruns, Austria.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

Bellerin has long been thought of as a big prospect. Arsenal moved to sign him in the summer of 2011, prising him away from Barcelona’s La Masia academy along with Jon Toral, an equally exciting midfielder of English heritage. 

When Bellerin first arrived, it was as a right-winger. Arsenal’s academy coaches deserve credit for the positional switch that would kick-start his ascension. Within months of arriving in north London, the Spaniard was repurposed as a full-back.

Speaking in 2012, Bellerin cited the change to playing in the back four as one of the reasons he was enjoying life with the Gunners.

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The then-17-year-old told Arsenal.com:

It has been really, really great. I’m so happy with the decision I made to come here.

When I was at Barcelona I always used to play on the right wing. But last year I learnt a lot from Steve Bould about how to defend and every day I feel more and more comfortable as a right back.

It gives me a chance to go forward, and I am learning every day about the defensive side - I really enjoy it.

In his time with the academy sides, Bellerin made quite an impression. Mikel Arteta knew as early as 2013 that Arsenal had a prodigiously gifted player on their hands.

In September 2015, he told Arsenal.com: "I knew two years ago that he had the ability to be first choice at Arsenal and I can’t see any better right-backs in the next two years in Spain." It was a bold statement from a man who is not prone to hyperbole.

It was in July 2013 that Bellerin signed his first professional contract with the club. Within two months, he had made his competitive debut, replacing Arteta in a Capital One Cup victory over West Bromwich Albion. He only played for a few minutes and curiously enough did so in central midfield—a sign of Arsene Wenger’s faith in his technical ability.

WATFORD, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Hector Bellerin of Watford in action during the Sky Bet Championship match between Watford and Reading at Vicarage Road on January 11, 2014 in Watford, England,  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Two months later, Bellerin was loaned out to Championship side Watford. It was hoped he would make a big impression in his temporary spell in the second tier of English football, but in truth, he struggled to feature regularly.

The Hornets played with wing-backs at the time, which ought to have suited Bellerin. However, Ikechi Anya had the right flank sewn up, and most of Bellerin’s fleeting appearances came on the left.

Watford fans watching Bellerin now must wonder why their club didn’t make more of having him on their books.

After returning to Arsenal, 2014/15 was Bellerin’s breakthrough year. The summer of 2014 saw Bacary Sagna leave the club after eight years dominating the right-back role. He was replaced by fellow France international Mathieu Debuchy, with Calum Chambers also arriving to provide competition and depth. With Carl Jenkinson also on the books, Bellerin appeared destined for a limited role. 

However, during pre-season, he played like a man intent on making an impression. During the Emirates Cup, he was afforded a start in a 5-1 win over Benfica. The fans in attendance were struck by his speed and skill.

Speaking to Arsenal.com a year on, Bellerin confessed it had been a significant day in his journey:

It was the game that gave me the chance to prove myself, and show everyone what I could do.

It was probably one of the games that was a real turning point of my career. It was a great experience, against a great team and the whole side put in a really good performance.

Luck also played its part. Debuchy’s time with Arsenal appeared cursed from the get-go. Two significant injuries in the course of his debut season effectively derailed his Gunners career before it began.

When Debuchy was ruled out in September 2014 after ankle surgery, the unavailability of Chambers and Jenkinson’s loan to West Ham United afforded Bellerin his UEFA Champions League debut in a 2-0 defeat in Dortmund.

Unfortunately, Bellerin looked raw and unprepared for the challenges of elite football. Lesser players might have taken the criticism to heart and crumbled. Instead, he fought back superbly.

When Debuchy suffered another major injury in January, Bellerin got his shot to prove he could make up for the Dortmund disaster.

When Debuchy was withdrawn with a dislocated shoulder against Stoke, it was Bellerin who came off the bench to replace him. A week later, he played against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. 

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 18: Sergio Aguero of Manchester City challenges  Hector Bellerin of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium on January 18, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Phot
Michael Steele/Getty Images

That was a huge game for Arsenal. They won 2-0, and the core of a new team was forged. Francis Coquelin and Bellerin, two academy graduates, were among the stars who shone brightest in this landmark victory. The former Barcelona man has never looked back.

His electric speed was immediately apparent. Bellerin holds the 40-metre sprint record at Arsenal, besting both Thierry Henry and Theo Walcott. However, he has begun to add positional intelligence to his prodigious pace. Hours of defensive training with Bould, the assistant manager, are now paying dividends.

It’s no surprise that Barcelona have grown wise to his progress. According to Ed Malyon of the Mirror, the Gunners have already warded off initial interest from the Catalan club.

Rui Vieira/Associated Press

Arsenal have been here before. Cesc Fabregas moved from Barcelona to digs in Barnet, north London, in his mid-teens, only to return to the Camp Nou aged 24.

Bellerin is 21, and there are understandable fears that it won’t be long before he retraces his steps to Catalonia.

Bellerin’s rise may ultimately culminate in him rejoining the European giants. There is a long history of players moving from north London to the Camp Nou, and a player with Bellerin’s background is all the more likely to follow the Catalan call.

If and when Bellerin does move, he is sure to command a huge fee, but that would be little consolation to the club that gave him his opportunity to play first-team football.

At the Emirates, the Spaniard has developed into an international-class full-back. He will now want to experience significant success at club level, and Barcelona are as close as you can get to a guarantee of major medals.

The onus is now on Arsenal to ensure they build a team competitive enough to keep Bellerin loyal.

James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2016/17. Follow him on Twitter here.