It’s an interesting, unknowable hypothetical, but it is worth wondering whether Krystian Bielik might still be at Arsenal had they been able to see how good Chelsea’s youngsters have been this season, before they sold him to Derby County this summer.
Bielik joined Arsenal in January 2015, a few weeks after his 17th birthday, but in the four-and-a-half years he was a contracted player at the Emirates, he made just two senior appearances, both in the League Cup. That’s mainly because he spent at least parts of three seasons out on loan, but it still feels slightly odd that he was given so little opportunity to impress in the first team.
“I wasn’t frustrated,” Bielik tells the Totally Football Show, when asked about his time with the Gunners. “I was surprised that I didn’t really get a chance. You know, I thought I deserved to get a chance in the first team at Arsenal.
“I just felt that there was no future for me at Arsenal anymore. There is a new manager who’s thinking different than Arsene Wenger [who brought Bielik to Arsenal]. It’s how it is. It’s football, a new manager comes to the club, he brings his coaching staff, he’s got different thinking about football and that’s it, you know?”
I thought I deserved to get a chance in the first team at Arsenal.
It is of course extremely speculative to think that Bielik, who spent last season on loan in League One with Charlton, might’ve made a similar impact to the likes of Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori. But at the very least, the success of Frank Lampard’s youngsters could have made them at least pause before sanctioning Bielik’s £8million move to Pride Park.
Not that Derby will care, of course. Bielik was the only player they paid a fee for in the summer, spotting both the 21-year-old’s potential after a terrific promotion season on loan at Charlton, and his versatility, the ability to both play in central defence and in midfield extremely appealing.
While being able to fill a couple of roles is valuable, Bielik has looked strongest in the middle of the park, and he could hardly have a better teacher in the art of midfield play than his manager. Phillip Cocu arrived at Pride Park a few weeks before Bielik, in theory a coup for the Rams after Lampard went home to Chelsea.
Overall results have been patchy at best, and frustrations have grown about their inability to string two wins together, but the influence of Cocu on Bielik has been clear. “Sometimes I make a bad decision [on the pitch] and we work on it together, he tries to explain that I should do this better or this decision wasn’t really good.
“We work on movement, to think all the time about where are the players, where should I stand? Or maybe what pockets I should run into to help my teammates around me. It’s really helpful. I’m very glad he wants to talk to me. He tries to explain what I could do better to be a better player.”
Interestingly, Cocu doesn’t seem to lean too heavily on his reputation as a player when coaching his players at Derby. Team talks or sessions do not start with him saying “When I was at Barcelona…”
“No, no. I think Phillip is not like this,” says Bielik. “I’ve never heard him talk about his career. He was a great player and everyone knows this, so he doesn’t have to say how good he was. I think he wants to be as good as good manager as he was as a player, and he’s on the path to achieve this. He’s here to help us create something big.”
This has been a tumultuous season for Derby, from other Championship clubs threatening to sue them over the sale of Pride Park to a company owned by chairman Mel Morris, to the drink driving scandal involving Tom Lawrence, Mason Bennett and Richard Keogh. The club took the frankly baffling decision to merely fine the former two, who were actually driving the cars involved in the incident, but effectively sack Keogh, a passenger in Bennett’s vehicle and who suffered what could be a career-ending injury.
He was a great player and everyone knows this, so he doesn't have to say how good he was.
Amid all of that, the madness of the Championship season must almost feel like a soothing oasis of calm – even Saturday’s East Midlands derby against Nottingham Forest. “A few of the boys already said that it’s gonna be big and tough game,” says Bielik. “We will be prepared and we’ll be ready for this game. I played already in big games, so it’s nothing special [unusual] for me. It’s going to be another important game for me.”
Derby currently sit in 15th place after a frustrating start to the season in which they have shown glimpses of form, but too inconsistently to have them nearer the sharp end. And yet, such is the nature of this division, that they are still well within touching distance of both their local rivals and the promotion pack in general.
“Everything takes time. It’s a new manager and new players as well. We’re doing alright now. There will always be up and downs. If you look at the table, we are 15th now right now, but we are four points behind the playoffs, and eight points off the top [two].”
The scrap for promotion to the Premier League looks like being the undignified bunfight that it always is, and you really wouldn’t be surprised if Derby and Bielik are there at the end of the season, scrabbling like everyone else for those three precious spots out of there.
And if he is back in the top flight next season, Bielik could show Arsenal what a mistake they made.
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