Poland were unlucky to not make it out of the European U21 Championship group stage despite winning their first two games. Krystian Bielik was a star at the tournament as he played three games at three different positions, adapting seamlessly and contributing two goals. Arsene Wenger signed the teenager from Legia Warsaw as a deep-lying playmaker who could also play at centre-back as he accumulated first team appearances at only 17 years of age. After a highly successful campaign at Charlton where he played in both roles, the Gunners and Unai Emery would be remiss to not give Bielik a proper opportunity with one year left on his contract.
"He has all the ingredients of a top-level centre back," said Arsene Wenger to Arsenal’s website in July 2016. “"He’s missing one thing - experience in this position. I converted him to a centre back because I felt he could play the type of football we want to play as a centre back. Most of the time this is a position for experienced players, because every mistake in the Premier League you pay for with a goal. What I try to achieve this season with him is to work on his positional play and give him some games.”
Arsene Wenger was a long-term admirer of Bielik as his astute decision to play him at centre-back has paid dividends which it seems Arsenal will not benefit from as they seek to sign him to a new contract and loan him. It is flummoxing that Emery would not have a proper look at him during Arsenal’s current financial predicament and with their current centre-back options.
Laurent Koscielny who is the leader of the Arsenal defence and the team’s best performing centre-back will depart while Rob Holding who improved massively under Emery is returning from a long-term injury. Sokratis Papstathopoulos is 31 and will need a partner or two as Calum Chambers’ best performances for Fulham came in midfield. Arsenal are yet to see the long-term potential of Konstantinos Mavropanos as a English Premier League centre-back. Relying on Nacho Monreal as centre-back cover at the age of 33 would be ill advised while Shkodran Mustafi lacks the confidence of the fans and the coaching staff.
Bielik’s own experiences are limited to pre-season football but he played an excellent game against Viking FK in 2016 as he featured next to Santi Cazorla in midfield. He was composed as his awareness and sense for danger was exemplary. The 21-year-old Pole shows no sign of wanting to return to U23 status with Arsenal and is looking for a long-term commitment with an opportunity to play first-team football at a high level.
“At this stage it wouldn’t make sense. If I do not receive the possibility to join the first team permanently, I will have to look for other solutions. I feel like a senior player now, so I want to play senior football,” said Bielik before the European Championships.
In a period where Ismael Bennacer and Jeff Reine-Adelaide will command large fees from top clubs, as the duo are similar to Bielik in being highly talented but lacking the Premier League experience, it would be poorly judged to not take a low risk and high reward decision to sign Bielik to a new contract and give him an opportunity with the first team. It is also a period where Serge Gnabry has surged into a leading role for Bayern Munich and the German National Team as losing Bielik for a paltry or no transfer fee without a sell-on clause would be more callous to Arsenal’s bottom line.
At the U21 European Championships, Bielik was physically commanding adding muscle to the domineering height that he joined Arsenal with. Against Belgium, he worked one-twos from the centre-back position to drive into the midfield line and beat the first line of opposition pressure while pinging accurate diagonals into the wide areas. Bielik’s size allows him to be a commanding physical presence but the speed of his feet at dribbling and working passes gives him the potential to be a world class ball-playing defender. He took a pass, drove past Aaron Leya Iseka to dribble past another Belgium attacker to drive into the opposition half to play another combination to receive possession in the wide areas.
Bielik played in a back four as he was comfortable receiving passes with both of his feet but prefers to play passes with his stronger right foot. His mastery of passing and working the ball with his favourite foot allows him to be extravagant at times as he once realised he had space in front of him, drove into the space to attract markers and play an outside of the boot pass to a teammate in a tight space. He then rose to head in a corner to put Poland in the lead in what was becoming a dominant performance.
The goal spurred him on as he played a pass through the lines, received the ball back to muscle his way past a Belgian attacker and poke a pass to a teammate with markers enclosing. The only blemish in his performance was a slovenly back-pass which led to an opportunity which was saved as Poland conceded from the resulting corner in a 3-2 victory. Against Italy, he played in midfield as Poland switched to a back three to stifle Italy. Bielik scored his second consecutive goal at the tournament when he volleyed a rebound from a free-kick past a stretching Alex Meret.
Bielik is amazingly light footed for a player of his size as he received the ball in tight spaces in the final third to hold possession and connect play. He had a moment where he chested a lobbed pass with Sandro Tonali on his heels to chip over the Italian midfielder and work a pass to a teammate. His role was to drop into spaces in the defensive zone while connecting play for quick breaks. He worked a wide combination to turn, drive into the centre and fire a shot at Meret.
Poland’s final group game against Spain brought another positional change for Bielik who played as a wide centre-back in a back three tasked with closing down the half-spaces. He struggled as Spain’s wide combinations were so quick and precise as Dani Ceballos and Dani Olmo interchanged while the young Pole only managed a few blocks and tackles. In the second-half, Poland responded by moving Bielik into the centre-back role in a back four as he instantly played two passes through the lines to instigate attacking moves.
The 21-year-old proved himself a well-rounded centre-back as not only can he dribble and pass his way past opposition pressure and into the opposition half, he is also effective at counter-pressing and winning the ball in a high-line. He would show great anticipation to charge at attackers to win possession through perfectly timed tackles and interceptions. He would be an ideal fit for Emery’s style of play as it could prove more expensive to let him go than sign him to a new contract and give him a proper opportunity to stake a claim for a starting place.
Arsenal’s strategy of signing young players and developing them for the first team has proved flawed and a failed version of Chelsea’s loan strategy. Players are wasting away in the U23s and first-team training sessions before being sold for low prices to develop at other clubs with little monetary reward for Arsenal. Per Mertesacker has been hired as the Academy Manager with Freddie Ljunberg as a bridge between the academy and the first team coaching staff to rectify this issue. Giving Bielik an opportunity could prove fruitful for Arsenal at a time where they lack funds to provide proper cover in a highly important and problematic position for the club.