It looks as though Arsenal will sell Héctor Bellerín this summer. The news shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: he’s been attracting interest from across Europe for a couple of transfer windows, and he lost his starting place to Calum Chambers as the season wound down. Spain seems to be his likeliest destination, with both Atlético Madrid and Real Betis interested.
James Benge reported this week that Arsenal have placed a £20M price tag on Bellerín, which likely prices Real Betis out. Betis have reportedly told Arsenal that they wouldn’t be able to work more than a loan or a free transfer. Atléti see him as a replacement for Kieran Trippier, who may be headed back to England.
The extremely difficult to swallow truth is that it might be time to move on from Bellerín, at least from a sporting perspective. He hasn’t fully recaptured his pre-ACL injury form, which is disappointing, both for him and for the club. Obviously, the personal aspect of a beloved player (or any player, really) struggling to return from serious injury matters much more than the effect it has on the club and transfer price.
Bellerín recently opened up about his struggles with his mental health and how he used drinking and going out to help cope when “football, which is basically [my] identity, gets taken” as he recovered and tried to work back from his injury. It’s that openness and honesty that has endeared Bellerín to Gooners like me. He has spoken out against racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination in football, works to combat climate change by using his platform to increase awareness and planting trees when Arsenal get results, and seems to be authentically, unabashedly himself. I’ll never forget when he essentially told a certain segment of the Arsenal support, “sod off, I’ll like and do what I want outside of football” when they asked him a question he didn’t appreciate about his interest in fashion and photography during his Oxford Union interview in 2016.
And even though it’s probably time to move on from a sporting perspective because Bellerín only has two years remaining on his contract and Arsenal have said time and again that they don’t want players getting to the final year of their deals, I’ll offer two reasons why the club might want to keep him.
The first is a sporting one: how big of a need is a new right back? I’d suggest that the combination of Calum Chambers and Bellerín should be good enough to compete for a Champions League spot, especially with fewer matches on the schedule. If what Arsenal currently have on the roster is sufficient (hello Sead Kolasinac as the backup LB), Arteta and Edu might be better served strengthening other positions like CDM and CAM where quality depth is severely lacking.
Of course, you could also argue that having Chambers and Bellerín is a “if you’ve got two starting quarterbacks, you’ve got none” situation or that the club should sell one and use the funds to strengthen elsewhere precisely because next season Arsenal don’t need two quality players at RB, they need a starter and a rotational backup.
The second reason is sentimental. He’s Arsenal through and through. He’s been at the club since he was 16. He’s a top class person — the kind you want representing your club, the kind that makes you proud to be a Gooner. We say Arsenal means something, that the badge and the club represent more than wins and losses and the cold, unfeeling red and black of the balance sheet. Héctor Bellerín is that.
Mikel Arteta has said that Arsenal must be “ruthless” this summer as he and Edu remake the roster. There’s generally not much room for sentimentality in football, and it’s quite likely that Bellerín becomes a casualty of the harsh reality that is football as business.
But it sucks. I really don’t like it.
In many ways, it’s fitting that Héctor Bellerín is the impetus for my (and I’m guessing many of your) internal conflict. He’s spent the last five-plus years embodying his message that there is more to life than football and that footballers, like the game and like life, are complex. Complex and complicated are the perfect words to describe sorting through the interplay between the conflicted feelings, logical reasoning, and at-odds allegiances created by the likelihood of him being sold this summer.
I would also be remiss not to acknowledge another pillar of Héctor Bellerín’s “message” — that footballers have agency and that their voices and desires matter — and the role that plays. James Benge reports that “both parties have come to an understanding that it is time to part ways,” which kind of moots my entire dissertation. If Bellerín truly thinks it is time to move on, then Arsenal (and I) should respect that decision. But I’m still working (and writing) through it.