When Krystian Bielik joined Arsenal in a high-profile move from Legia Warsaw in January, few people would have predicted that the young Pole would still be waiting to make his senior debut for the club by the time October came around.
That is the case, however, and to casual onlookers it may appear that the 17-year-old hasn’t developed quite as expected in the ensuing period. The reality is, though, that Bielik has been progressing very well for the club at U21 level and that he hasn’t been afforded an opportunity to impress in the first-team is largely owing to the fact that he has several senior players ahead of him in his two main positions of defensive-midfield and centre-back.
Bielik’s development since he joined the club has been interesting to watch, especially in terms of the positions he has been deployed in. Upon his arrival he started as a defensive-midfielder for the U18s before delivering some composed performances at the heart of the defence after he was swiftly promoted to the U21s.
He then enjoyed a run of games in midfield towards the end of last season, but this campaign he has, to the surprise of many, been utilised exclusively at centre-back.
That decision has been difficult to comprehend for some given that he is one of the very few bonafide defensive-midfielders on the club’s books at youth level. Furthermore, the fact that Bielik has been a regular starter for the U21s at centre-back has meant that Stefan O’Connor, another player the coaching staff have high hopes for, has been mainly used as a substitute this season.
As far as Bielik is concerned, he has fared well in his new position, forging an effective partnership with Julio Pleguezuelo. Bielik’s height and physical presence complements Pleguezuelo’s speed and craft, whilst Bielik himself is also excellent technically.
Bielik also possesses the intelligence to spot team-mates in good positions, although his passing can occasionally be off-key. He can also be caused problems by skilful and quick attackers, but, for the most part, he has fared well at centre-back.
The coaching staff’s decision to deploy him there seems rather deliberate, but there is a serious case to be argued that Bielik is even more effective as a defensive-midfielder. The youngster specialises in breaking up play and is more suited to playing his favoured short, snappy passes when he is stationed in the middle of the pitch.
In the U21 game against Derby County earlier in the season, Bielik started the game at centre-back and wasn’t at his best, but he thrived upon being moved into midfield following the introduction of O’Connor.
The decision to use him at centre-back also seems rather bizarre given that Bielik’s most obvious route into the first-team set-up at present would appear to be as a midfielder. The Gunners are well stocked for senior centre-backs at present, with Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, Gabriel and Calum Chambers all at the club.
In contrast, in defensive-midfield the club are rather short of options beyond Francis Coquelin, with Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini both in their thirties and also in the final year of their current contracts at the club.
It has been a little surprising to see Glen Kamara training with the first-team regularly in recent weeks to provide defensive-midfield cover when Bielik is readily available. It seems, then, that the club see Bielik as a centre-back at the moment, and he certainly won’t mind so long as he is featuring regularly for the youth sides.
When it comes to first-team action, though, he may have to be rather more patient than initially anticipated for sustained opportunities. He stands a chance of making the squad for the Capital One Cup game away to Sheffield Wednesday next month, but before then he will seek to impress in training for the U21s.
Arsene Wenger is evidently a fan of Bielik, despite the fact that he demoted him, surely temporarily, from his first-team squad over the summer. The youngster will inevitably be back in the senior set-up in due course, but at the moment it appears that he will do so as a centre-back rather than as a defensive-midfielder.
It could well be the case that the club are attempting to school him as a centre-back so that he is able to cover there if needed in the future, and the development of a more rounded player would be to everybody’s benefit.
For now, though, Bielik is being seen as a centre-back and it will be interesting to see how he fares in that position throughout the course of the campaign, particularly if he comes up against exacting opposition in the UEFA Youth League.