Mikel Arteta already knows his perfect Hector Bellerin transfer replacement at Arsenal

Upon being knocked out of the Europa League at the semi-final stage by Unai Emery’s Villarreal, Mikel Arteta promised that he and Edu would be “ruthless” in their attempts to create an Arsenal squad capable of being back among the European places.

“I think a project has its phases and I am telling you we are in a much better position today to be where we want to be very soon, if we do what we have to do,” he said earlier this month. “But we have to be ruthless.

“We cannot be crying and stuck on what we don’t have. We have to see what we do have and maximise it to get what we want.”

As the transfer window edges closer to reopening it seems as though Hector Bellerin will be one of the first victims of his squad overhaul.

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The Spaniard has actually had a better season than he has been given credit for and is greatly admired by the Arsenal coaching staff for his leadership qualities, and is a popular figure around the dressing room at London Colney.

However, he lacks the qualities that Arteta wants from his full-backs and, therefore, under the Gunners’ new cut-throat transfer policy this summer, Bellerin, despite being the club’s longest-serving player, looks set to leave, football.london understands.

So what are these qualities Arteta wants?

Well, immediately after taking over the Spaniard made it very clear that he wanted to bring in some of the ideas he had learned under his mentor, Pep Guardiola, to the Emirates.

Key among these was the standard 2-3-5 formation that he wanted the Gunners to adopt when in possession of the ball.

For Arteta’s Arsenal, the two here is made up of the centre-backs, while the three is usually composed of the pair of sitting midfielders and one ‘inverted full back’, who moves infield to complete the trio.

The idea behind this is to provide an extra option on the ball in midfield and to offer more central cover if the team is caught on the counter.

Meanwhile, the opposite full-back will push high up the pitch to support the attack and create the offensive five.

In those early days of Arteta’s reign, it was Ainsley Maitland-Niles who adopted that inverted full-back role at the Emirates.

In the picture below, from the Spaniard’s first victory as Arsenal manager, the England international can be seen drifting infield to sit alongside Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles drifts away from the touchline towards the middle of the pitch to form a midfield three with Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira
Ainsley Maitland-Niles drifts away from the touchline towards the middle of the pitch to form a midfield three with Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira

However, the one thing Arteta valued more than his tactical principles were his disciplinary ones and a combination of Maitland-Niles’ alleged lax approach to training and unwillingness to play at right-back saw him dropped in favour of Sokratis, despite the Greek international’s struggles in the position.

Since that point, Arteta has failed to really find a player capable of filling the same tactical role within his squad.

He has tried to use Bellerin there, which can be seen by comparing the 26-year-old’s average heatmap this season to his last full season not under Arteta, particularly when looking at his movements just in front of the opposition penalty area (images as per Wyscout).

Hector Bellerin’s average heatmap in the 2018/19 season – the final campaign before Mikel Arteta took over at Arsenal (image as per Wyscout)

Hector Bellerin’s average heatmap for the 2020/21 season – Mikel Arteta’s first full season in charge at Arsenal

However, Bellerin is at his best when getting wide and overlapping the winger ahead of him.

In many ways, the Spaniard has been unfortunate that he has not been allowed to do this.

If Arsenal had a left-back capable of drifting infield to complete the midfield three in the all-important 2-3-5 set-up, then he would have been allowed to get forward and be at his threatening best.

This could be seen in the game against Newcastle where Granit Xhaka was asked to play at left-back. The Swiss international’s natural role as a midfielder saw him come more central, allowing Bellerin to get upfield (as seen in the picture below) to put in probably his best display in an Arsenal shirt in the second half of the season (image as per WhoScored).

Hector Bellerin’s heatmap from Arsenal’s game vs Newcastle at St. James’ Park this season. With Granit Xhaka in the side at left back he was able to get forward more and play his natural game.

However, the attacking excellence of Kieran Tierney, who has created more opportunities from open play than any other member of the Gunners squad this season, means Bellerin, unfortunately, doesn’t fit in Arteta’s preferred tactical set-up.

So if he isn’t the right solution, then who is?

Cedric has fallen down the pecking order recently and like Bellerin is at his best when getting forward to overlap the winger, while the same can be said of Calum Chambers, who has been surprisingly impressive with his excellent delivery in the final third towards the end of this season.

Maitland-Niles is still at the club but has his heart set on playing central midfield instead, so it seems that Arsenal will have to look externally to satisfy their manager’s demands at right-back.

With this in mind, one player they could look to bring in is someone Arteta has already worked with during his time at Manchester City in Joao Cancelo.

The Portugal international has excelled this season in the ‘inverted full back role’, drifting infield so successfully that some regular City observers were even questioning whether he could be the heir to Fernandinho as the club’s central defensive midfielder.

After slightly tailing off in form towards the end of the season, losing his starting place to Kyle Walker and missing out on a starting spot in the Champions League final, The Athletic have reported that the 27-year-old is considering his future at the Etihad.

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City signed Cancelo for £60million though, and would most likely want a price that could put him out of Arsenal’s price range – even with Pep Guardiola’s good relationship with Arteta.

But as the Gunners look to the transfer market to ruthlessly overhaul their squad this summer, they have a clear tactical blueprint in the form of the Portuguese defender in exactly what their manager is looking for from his right-back.

The question now is whether he will be backed by Stan and Josh Kroenke to go out and get them.

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