WHEN Hector Bellerin joined Watford on loan in 2013 there was no suggestion he would go on to become one of the world’s best right-backs.
And when the Spaniard was recalled by Arsenal in 2014 after falling out of favour at Vicarage Road he could not have been further from where he is today.
But, today, the Barcelona transfer target is considered one of the best in his position.
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A return to the club he left in 2011 to join the Gunners has repeatedly been mooted.
At one point he looked a certainty to be the next big name to leave the Emirates in search of silverware.
Yet 22-year-old Bellerin has struggled for form this season and the numbers confirm he is on the decline.
We asked our friends at Football Whispers to look at what has gone wrong for a player who appeared to be Dani Alves’ long-term heir at Barca?
It has been a disastrous season for Arsenal. From being nailed-on to clinch a top-four spot every season the Gunners look set to miss out on the Champions League next term for the first time under Arsene Wenger.
Sixth in the Premier League and seven points behind Manchester City in fourth, Arsenal’s decline has been mirrored by that of Bellerin.
That came to a head last Monday when the Gunners defender was roundly booed by travelling supporters in an embarrassing 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace.
The speedy full-back’s numbers have all noticeably dropped since he was at his peak during the 2014-15 season.
At that point the Barcelona native was averaging 2.2 tackles per game, 2.4 interceptions and 1.1 crosses blocked – numbers which made him one of the Premier League’s best.
Equally impressive were his attacking statistics. With 1.8 successful dribbles and 0.6 accurate crosses per game he was a threat going forward.
However, there has been an alarming drop-off in form for the Spaniard.
This season he is winning less than 50 per cent of the tackles he was two seasons ago and making considerably fewer interceptions and clearances.
The real question, therefore, is why has Bellerin struggled to replicate his form of two seasons ago?
One theory is that the Gunners’ defence is enjoying less protection from those in front of them this season.
Two seasons ago Wenger was able to call upon a fairly settled duo of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla to screen the back four.
This season, though, the identity of the two deepest-lying Arsenal midfielders has changed regularly.
Cazorla, thanks to injury, has made just seven Premier League starts. Coquelin has made 20 starts but the French enforcer is another struggling to replicate his best form.
Summer signing Granit Xhaka was signed to provide more bite and steel in midfield.
Yet the £30million Swiss has often gone too far in that regard, picking up two red cards and nine yellows in all competitions.
Another personnel issue which will not have helped is the direct protection in front of him.
Two seasons ago Bellerin had the workaholic Alexis Sanchez in front of him. The Chilean won two tackles per game that season and made 1.2 interceptions.
However, it is Theo Walcott who has played on the right of midfield for the majority of this term.
The England international contributes 1.3 tackles per game and 0.7 interceptions. That will not have helped.
Travelling Gunners supporters turned on the young defender during Arsenal’s humbling loss at Crystal Palace earlier this month.
Asked if the criticism was unfair, Wenger was quick to jump to the defence of his player and said: “Yes.
“He is a guy who is genuinely Arsenal and wants to do well. He is ready to play with pain and I think it is, yes.”
Despite his below-par form, Bellerin is expected to be called up to Spain’s Under-21 squad for this summer’s European Championships in Poland.
But Wenger has called on the defender to reject Albert Celades’ call as he believes a rest is in order after 105 appearances for the Gunners in the last three seasons.
It is easy to forget, given his rapid rise, that Bellerin is still only 22.
There is still much for him to learn. And, despite those persistent links to Barca, Bellerin is not the finished product.
His positioning, awareness and decision-making need improvement. But they are qualities which come with time.
Above all, though, the form of those around him will have played as bigger factor as any in Bellerin’s decline.
It is hard to be at your best when those around you – particularly the more experienced members of the squad – are struggling.