Thursday 29 September 2016

Meet Arsenal's quickest-ever player - And it is not Thierry Henry

Young Spaniard has made rapid progress and beaten Theo Walcott's record for 40 metres, writes Jeremy Wilson

Jeremy Wilson

Published 09/04/2015 | 02:30

Hector Bellerin wheels away in celebration after opening the scoring against Liverpool
Hector Bellerin wheels away in celebration after opening the scoring against Liverpool

Hector Bellerin followed the path first trodden by Cesc Fabregas in leaving Barcelona for Arsenal at the age of 16 but he has also now quite literally accelerated beyond the footsteps of even Thierry Henry and Theo Walcott.

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The club 40-metre sprint record is a matter of some prestige at Arsenal. The course is carefully laid out at the club's training ground and timing gates are set up to measure speeds over the first five metres, from five to 15 metres and finally from the start to finish.

When Henry set a time of 4.82sec, it was thought to be as safe as his all-time club goalscoring record. And then Walcott came along and lowered the record to 4.42sec. Could that be bettered? Walcott discovered the answer while recovering from knee surgery last summer when Bellerin, then only 19, shaved one hundredth of a second off his time.

"It was really unexpected," Bellerin says with a smile. "I worked a lot on my speed and power with the conditioning coach last year. The work that you don't see, in the shadows, really shows on the pitch. We were just having a test and then they told me I was the fastest at the club. I did not beat it by that much. There was a bit of banter and he is trying to beat me now."

Walcott acknowledges that it was a "big thing" in the dressing-room and believes that pre-season will provide the ultimate showdown. He is now 26 but still thinks he can go faster. "Did he have the wind, was it downhill?" Walcott asks. "We'll wait until the summer and the perfect conditions like he had."

Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are not very far behind. Sanchez's strength is apparently over the first 15 metres, whereas Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain are at their best when the distance is slightly longer. Mesut Ozil and Serge Gnabry are apparently also in contention and, while the identity of Arsenal's slowest player over 40m remains secret, it was not Per Mertesacker.

What has been most impressive this season, however, is how Bellerin has grasped his chance. He was on loan at Watford last year under Gianfranco Zola and the former Italy striker has become one of his mentors.

Arsene Wenger admits that he did not expect Bellerin to be in the first-team this season but there is now a question about whether he will keep Mathieu Debuchy out once he recovers from shoulder surgery.

Bellerin has played in the recent wins against Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool and clearly developed vastly since his debut against Borussia Dortmund six months ago.

Upon meeting Bellerin, it is hard not to be struck by just how polite he is.

Any stereotype of brash young footballers can be quickly consigned to the bin. His first reply is "thank you very much" when asked about his improvement and he then explains, in perfect English, how Wenger's confidence rubbed off on him.

Wenger has never been afraid to risk young players or convert midfielders into defenders and, while Bellerin did look exposed on his debut, his reaction was not to hide but to grow, learn and get better.

"Every single minute you play helps you a lot and gives you experience," he says. "I am happy that now, after not so good performances in the beginning, the coach has still put confidence in me and given me minutes. We are lucky in this club, we young players get the opportunities."

risk

The 4-1 win against Liverpool on Saturday still highlighted the calculated risk that Wenger had taken. "I picked Bellerin for his pace and low centre of gravity," the manager said. "Raheem Sterling changes direction very quickly and Hector is short as well."

After cutting inside, Bellerin opened the scoring with a fine left-footed finish. Then, with Arsenal leading 3-0, his tackle on Sterling conceded the penalty that gave Liverpool a flicker of hope. It was a rash moment but a rare one.

"I am glad people are seeing this improvement," Bellerin says. "It is a bit of everything that has got better but the defending really as I was always a winger in my younger career."

That younger career was shaped between the ages of eight and 16 by Barcelona's academy. He joined Arsenal in the same summer that Fabregas returned to Catalonia and, as part of that deal, it is understood that Barcelona waived any future sell-on clause. Like Fabregas, Bellerin joined Arsenal because of the greater prospect of first-team football.

"My dream has always been to be a footballer, not play at Barca," he says. "Many people called me crazy when I left, but I'm showing that I was right. Life does not end at Barca.

"Sometimes you've got to get out of your comfort zone and discover new challenges. I have been here for a long time now, this feels like home, but I am still Spanish, with all of my family over there. If I had stayed in Barcelona I don't know if I would have got to the top, the elite. We'll never know. I have Arsene Wenger to thank. He has been the coach that has given me a great opportunity." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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