Hector Bellerin and the Arsenal Fan TV fiasco

Over the past couple of days, there has been widespread attention across social media regarding comments made by Hector Bellerin about Arsenal Fan TV during a speech he gave at the Oxford Union last month. Although I am not an Arsenal supporter, I was fortunate enough to be there in person at the talk, so I thought I would share some thoughts on the reaction which has seen Bellerin come in for a hefty amount of criticism in recent days (much of which has come from those involved with the AFTV channel).

For those not aware, the Oxford Union is a debating society which invites speakers from all kinds of different backgrounds to either take part in a debate (usually political), or to give a talk about their career and personal interests, as Bellerin did. The Union is separate from the University of Oxford, although the vast majority of its membership is from the university.

There have been many high-profile football speakers in recent years, including Rio Ferdinand, Clarence Seedorf, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Edwin van der Saar. Bellerin is unusual in this context, in that it is very rare for a current professional footballer to speak at these events- most likely because any vaguely controversial opinions they might share will quickly be pounced upon and plastered all over the internet, as has happened with Bellerin over the past week.

It is probably no coincidence, therefore, that a scheduled talk by Mesut Özil this month has recently been cancelled. The reason for the cancellation has not been made public, but it seems likely that it may well be in response to the recent reaction to Bellerin’s visit. Özil is an even higher-profile figure than Bellerin and it is easy to imagine the fallout should he have made any controversial comments of note.

The majority of the time, when interviewed in the public domain- such as the post-match interviews on Sky Sports and BT Sports- players are well versed in delivering bland, pre-programmed responses such that they will avoid criticism and scrutiny around their choice of words. Very rarely will a player offer their own in-depth opinions or analysis after a game, as they will be trained to deliver the usual platitudes such as “we’ll have to work on this in training next week”, “I’m happy to have scored, but the team’s victory comes first”, or “we just take each game as it comes” etc.

Talks at the Oxford Union, by contrast, offer a platform for footballers to speak openly about a range of issues to an audience of several hundred young people, the majority of whom are in their early 20s. They will be asked a series of questions in an interview format to begin with, ranging from their experiences within the sport, to more general issues beyond the footballing sphere, before audience members are invited to ask their own questions.

When Bellerin was asked about his opinions on Arsenal Fan TV, this was a question raised by an audience member, to which he responded that he feels it is “really wrong” for an enterprise to be profiting from the club’s failures, thus questioning whether such people can really claim to be fans.

He also went on to say that people are perfectly entitled to make money as they wish, and that he only values criticism coming from his coaches, but that he is aware of the highly reactionary and often highly critical nature of Arsenal Fan TV.

The first thing to say, is that Bellerin is correct in a sense. Arsenal Fan TV does attract the majority of its viewership when Arsenal lose. Fans from other clubs will quickly flock to watch the videos every time Arsenal suffer a poor result to watch a variety of notorious figures vent their frustrations, often in an amusing manner, in front of a camera.

Arsenal Fan TV does also make money from this, of course, although the vast majority of contributors are not paid to speak on the videos. It is a platform which allows fans to have a voice as an alternative to mainstream media, and is inherently more emotive and strongly opinionated than traditional forms of football coverage.

Where I, and many others, disagree with Bellerin, is when he suggests it’s difficult to call someone a fan if they partake in such a platform which benefits financially when Arsenal underperform. Those who appear on Arsenal Fan TV- and other fan TV channels- are, for the most part, loyal and committed supporters who are fully entitled to give their opinion on the club to which they devote so much time and money.

Arsenal Fan TV also features heavy praise for players and their performances when the team wins, of course.

Bellerin, however, is entitled to give his own opinion in the same way that fans can openly and heavily criticise his performances. From his perspective, as a professional footballer, he is far less likely to be made aware of clips when supporters praise him and the team, than he is when he performs poorly and the team loses.

His view, therefore, is not fully informed and is heavily shaped by the negative side of Arsenal Fan TV and he most likely sees it purely as a source of wild, over-reactive criticism and even abuse, which he admitted he will often be sent clips of after a bad performance.

What I find most interesting and disappointing, though, is the manner in which a small comment he made as part of a 40-minute talk, is seized upon in a way which brands him as rude, disrespectful and detached from supporters. Throughout his talk, Bellerin covered a whole range of topics, ranging from mental health (i.e. how difficult would it be for a high-profile professional footballer to reveal they suffered from depression), a discussion of racism in football (with reference to the abuse suffered by Liverpool youngster, Rhian Brewster, with whom he shares an agency), his charity work (including raising funds for the victims of the Grenfell disaster) and the Catalan independence movement.

He came across as a thoroughly intelligent and well-spoken individual who clearly has an enormous amount of humilty and awareness of his fortunate position in society, speaking with honesty and intellect about topics far beyond his own career in the game.

I was also able to meet Bellerin in person before the talk, and he was both thoroughly engaged and laid back- a very easy person to get along with and not remotely pretentious or disinterested, as some footballers can come across.

I asked him about his toughest opponents in the Premier League this season (Richarlison was his answer), his thoughts on Spain’s chances in the World Cup (he said to keep an eye out for Isco as the key player of the new generation) and his experience of facing Mo Salah twice this season, to which he emphatically stated that the Egyptian is the signing of the season.

It is reflective of a wider scepticism towards footballers in general- often characterised as greedy and detached from supporters- that Bellerin has been the target of such criticism for what was a tiny proportion of his talk, while the rest- some of which was thoroughly insightful on some really important issues- is hardly even touched upon and discarded as irrelevant, while fans project their anger in his direction, ignoring the entirety of the wider context in which he delivered such comments (which, ultimately, was just an honest opinion for which he was asked to give).


Arsenal 3-3 Liverpool: Match analysis

How many times can Liverpool get themselves into a commanding lead and contrive to throw it away? How many times can Liverpool come away with a draw away from home against a good side and feel as though they’ve been beaten? How many times can Liverpool be the better team for 95% of the game and somehow manage not to win?

And here we are again. If it were a one-off occurrence, you could perhaps write this one off as one of those freak games which simply happens from time to time. It’s the nature of football. Yet the reality is that Liverpool have dropped points from comfortable winning positions numerous times this season against inferior opposition, such that it must now be considered a habit- and a very damaging one at that. Entertaining for the neutral, undoubtedly, but that’s not the aim of this enterprise for Liverpool if it doesn’t return the points they need.

Watford, Burnley, Newcastle, Man United, Chelsea, Everton, West Brom and now Arsenal. 16 points dropped to draws, the vast majority of which ought to have been comfortable wins. It’s difficult not to feel as though Liverpool should be sitting on a much healthier points total than they currently have- even if the current tally of 35 is just one off the pace at this stage in 2013-14.

When Mo Salah finally makes it 2-0 early in the second-half, the game should be dead and buried. In truth, the game should be put beyond Arsenal before half-time, such were the opportunities Liverpool spurned. And yet, they still managed to score three goals at a ground where very few teams have found much joy all season. Three goals should be more than enough to secure the victory, but such is the inability of this Liverpool side to effectively close out games that two goals never feels enough- even three, as seen against Sevilla, still feels like a precarious situation.

This is a strange, confusing, brilliant-but-flawed Liverpool side whose capacity for the absurd never ceases to amaze. They have gone to the Emirates and absolutely played Arsenal off the park up until 53 minutes, only for heads to fall off in the most calamitous of five-minute spells imaginable. From 2-0 up on 52 minutes, to 3-2 down on 58. Until then, Arsenal had hardly touched the ball inside Liverpool’s penalty area and yet managed to haul themselves in front as Liverpool rolled over and capitulated.

The manner in which one goal quickly became two, then three, was reflective of the collective mental fragility of this Liverpool side. They defended impeccably for the entirety of the first-half, giving absolutely nothing away. Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan turned in excellent performances and still came away as part of a defence having conceded three goals. The lack of leadership is often levelled as a major criticism of this team and it was laid bare on this occasion as Arsenal duly profited.

The first goal is a momentary lapse in concentration by Joe Gomez- otherwise excellent- but no one is giving him a shout to let him know Alexis Sanchez is steaming in behind him to get on the end of the cross. He should be more aware, but this Liverpool defence doesn’t half fail to communicate properly in key moments.

The second is simply an appalling piece of goalkeeping by Simon Mignolet which any competent goalkeeper should be comfortably catching, or punching away at the very least. Instead, Mignolet contrives to punch the ball into the net- more a hologram than an actual goalkeeper- and Granit Xhaka’s speculative effort further swings the momentum in Arsenal’s favour.

Again, the third goal can be attributed to poor goalkeeping even if it is an excellent move engineered by Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette. Mignolet goes to ground so early and rather than making himself big and narrowing the angle down, does the precise opposite to allow Ozil an easy chip into an empty net.

None of this should come as a surprise. Goalkeeper is a position where you do not mess about if you’re a team with serious ambitions to win trophies and compete at the top end of the table and yet Mignolet still holds the number one spot in his fifth season at the club. It’s gone too far. It’s an obvious weakness which has been repeatedly neglected and continually proves costly with individual errors undermining superb attacking displays.

Of course, it’s overly simplistic to attach all the blame to the goalkeeper but this is a consistent pattern over nearly half a decade now and it needs fixing. Mignolet is 29 now and what we see now is probably the best he will ever be- which isn’t good enough for Liverpool. Jürgen Klopp surely has to recognize this and at least give Loris Karius the chance to prove himself for the remainder of the season. Karius might not be the long-term solution, but he has largely played well when given the chance this season and it’s worth seeing what his true level is before reassessing in the summer. He cannot be worse than Mignolet, regardless.

In and among all this is another demonstration of the devastating potency of this Liverpool attack. They were far, far from their best level against Arsenal and still scored three. They should have scored at least five or six. In Salah, Liverpool have the Premier League’s top scorer- now on 21 in all competitions- right up among Europe’s most prolific forwards in the major leagues. Roberto Firmino has yet another outstanding performance, notching his 14th of the season and picking up another assist with an exceptional piece of play to set Salah through on goal.

Philippe Coutinho continues his phenomenal goalscoring form with a wonderfully deft header, while Sadio Mané- last season’s main man- is still well off the boil. He’s simply too good a player not to come good and this is the first real dip in form he’s suffered at Liverpool. It’s been a stop-start season for him, but it speaks volumes of Liverpool’s forward line that they’re firing on all cylinders even while Mané isn’t performing anywhere near his capability.

As much as the attack may well be brilliant (if wasteful at times), the midfield is once again an area of concern and the failure to control the game when in the lead against Arsenal contributed significantly to the team’s ultimate downfall. Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner all have their relative strengths and weaknesses but there is no current partnership which is truly capable of controlling games against the best sides. The ease with which Arsenal were able to stroll through empty spaces in parts of the second half completely unchallenged was unfathomable.

The same could be said for the hosts themselves, with Jack Wilshere (although impressive in possession) and Xhaka offering very little protection to their own defence, but the need for Liverpool to strengthen in central midfield was ruthlessly exposed once more. The arrival of Naby Keita cannot come soon enough and it’s not difficult to see how much the RB Leipzig man will bring to Liverpool’s midfield, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that a top-quality, defensive-minded midfielder is a necessity for this team to strike the right balance and ensure greater solidity and pragmatism to effectively see these kinds of games out from winning positions.

The issues are obvious and there for all to see, but ultimately it is for the manager to identify them and address them- and how he now deals with the goalkeeper situation going forward may well be a defining factor in his time at the club. Again, Klopp waited too long to make changes when Liverpool clearly had lost their grip and both the Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain substitutions ought to have come much earlier when Arsenal had begun to seize the initiative.

It was a game which showcased the very best and worst of Liverpool under Klopp- a further demonstration of just how good they can be, but another painful reminder of their tendency to self-sabotage. Liverpool have outplayed Arsenal twice this season and find themselves just one point ahead at the half-way mark. That gap should be much larger and for that they only have themselves to blame.

Amid the immense frustration in the immediate aftermath, it feels like a huge missed opportunity- and it is. A point is never a good point when it comes from being 2-0 up. However, the target for the four fixtures over the Christmas period should be 10 points from 12 and therefore how Liverpool respond to this will define this block of games. Back it up with three wins against Swansea, Leicester and Burnley- by no means easy, but eminently achievable- and the table will paint a very encouraging picture heading into the new year.

But, it could- and should- be already so much better.