First Danny Welbeck. Then Rob Holding. And now Hector Bellerin. In the space of just three months, Arsenal have suffered three grisly season-ending injuries, in an already challenging year for the club. There is absolutely no doubt that this latest blow is the worst.
On Tuesday, the club moved to confirm the news that had already started to filter out of Bellerin’s camp: his campaign was over. “We can confirm that Hector has ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee,” their short statement read.
“Hector will undergo surgery to repair this in the coming days. The rehabilitation process is expected to take between six to nine months and therefore rules Hector out of action for the remainder of this season.”
This latest injury setback could not have come at a worse time for Bellerin, who collapsed to the turf in tears during the second half of Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Chelsea on Saturday evening. He was making his first start since mid-December having finally shaken off a calf problem, with his return absolutely crucial in Unai Emery’s decision to line his team up in a successful midfield diamond.
Emery is a huge admirer of Bellerin, valuing his compatriot as one of Arsenal’s most prized assets. He has also helped, in the space of just a few months, to effectively revitalise the 23-year-old’s career.
Bellerin enjoyed a true breakthrough campaign in 2015/16, becoming an essential part of the Arsenal team which eventually finished second behind Leicester City, but over the next two years his poor form and seeming lack of development came to be seen as symptomatic of a club firmly in decline under Arsene Wenger. More so than anybody, Bellerin needed change.
Emery’s injection of energy made an immediate impression. “The training has been way different,” Bellerin noted approvingly, a month into the season. “We work on different things to how we did under the boss. Unai Emery is more tactical. We are going to be more organised on the pitch and we are getting used to it, working really hard, everyone is really excited.”
Emery’s style of play — with two central midfielders sitting deep and full-backs pinned forward to offer both width and penetration — could not be more suited to players such as Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac. This season, only Aaron Ramsey (6) has made more than Bellerin’s five assists, while further proof of just how integral Bellerin is can be found in the games he has already missed.
Arsenal were on a 22-match unbeaten run until Bellerin tweaked his calf halfway through December’s match at Southampton. Without him, Arsenal fell to a disappointing 3-2 defeat, eventually going on to win just two of their next five Premier League games until Bellerin returned last weekend.
It will be exceptionally difficult — if not impossible — for Arsenal to replace him. Stephan Lichtsteiner was snapped up from Juventus in the summer to provide cover, but the 35-year-old has understandably struggled to adjust to the furious pace of the Premier League and has looked something of a liability when relied upon this season.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles is the more likely, and intriguing, replacement for the remainder of the season. Like Bellerin, he has the pace and energy to rattle back and forward down the flank for 90 minutes. Like Bellerin, he has the ability to retain possession and the confidence to take his man on. And like Bellerin, he began his career playing in a far more advanced role, and is so comfortable when breaking into the final third.
It also bears remembering that it was a mid-season injury crisis that first handed Bellerin the opportunity to break into Wenger’s starting XI, back in 2014. He eventually saw off competition from Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers to start 15 of the club’s final 18 Premier League games.
Yet by that stage in his career, Bellerin was already comfortable in his new position. Maitland-Niles, still only 21, is an even more versatile player and has already started in a range of different roles this season. He will need to adapt quickly. And Arsenal's fixture list is challenging.
Arsenal next play Manchester United in the FA Cup with a trip to the Etihad to face defending champions City looming large on the horizon, and whoever stands in for Bellerin will be identified by those teams as a weakness that can be exploited. Emery is a habitual tinkerer but he may find his best hope of adequately replacing Bellerin for the remainder of the season is to come up with a plan and stick to it.
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