For all the talk of Arsenal needing new signings, it’s funny that three of the players Gunners fans are most excited about seeing play next season are Londoners through and through.
Elephant and Castle-raised Reiss Nelson is just 19 years of age, but flexed exactly what he can bring to North London while on loan at Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga last season. Nelson is still looking just as lit in pre-season, and Gunners fans can’t wait to see a much more mature player back balling in his boyhood colours, and it’s clear he’s equally as excited to get going.
2018/19 was also a breakthrough season for Ainsley Maitland-Niles The 21-year-old from North East was one of the brightest sparks in Arsenal’s defence last season, coming in to feature heavily in the second half of the club’s domestic and European campaigns to showcase his boundless energy, versatility and hunger to improve – all while playing in an unfamiliar position.
Héctor Bellerín is a man who needs no introduction. Having moved to London as a teenager, Heccy has paved the way for a new era of ballers with his charismatic nature and off-field presence. He’s since become an aspirational figure who young Gunners like Maitland-Niles and Nelson look up to a lot – and he’s hungrier than ever to get back after his prolonged injury lay off.
The trio are ushering in a new era of drip at the club. With a fresh new kit comes a fresh opportunity to impress under Unai Emery and assistant Freddie Ljungberg, who are eager to give the trio prominent roles in a transitional period in North London. We caught up with Hector, Reiss and Ainsley during their pre-season tour out in LA where we talked about their expectations ahead of the new season, style and song selections ahead of an exciting new season at The Emirates.
VERSUS: What are your thoughts on the kit? Are you happy to see adidas delve into the archives for the retro influence of the kit?
Héctor Bellerín: I think it’s sick that the club have made a kit that just feels so timely. I know there was a lot of expectation from Arsenal fans after we changed kit supplier, and I think they’ve done really well with it. It’s modern, but it’s cool that they’ve given a nod to past adidas kits too.
In the kit launch video, a few of the players not normally known for their London slang try their hand at it. All of you have grown up in London, so you’ve all been using it for years. Do you get all of the boys speaking like that a lot in the dressing room?
HB: I don’t think any of the current boys had picked up the slang too much. Maybe Laca a little bit.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles: When they’re joking around they use it a lot. But it was more of cockney slang before. Reiss Nelson: But now after the campaign, everyone is gonna be using slang. The whole dressing room is speaking like that now!
Reiss, you grew up in Elephant and Castle - but Ainsley and Hector have both grown up in North. Who would win in a South London vs North London match?
RN: I don’t know too much about ballers from North, but South definitely have a lot of up-and-coming players – so I’d have to back us. Sancho, obviously. Trevoh Chalobah and his brother, Nathaniel. Callum [Hudson-Odoi]… the list goes on. Growing up where a lot of us did, we just grew up playing on estates, so we’re all quite tekky.
AMN: I’d say we’ve got a lot of players from North West to be fair. The people that I know, anyway. But I think we’d definitely give them a good game for sure.
Reiss: Sometimes you’ll be surprised, cause you don’t actually know certain players are from the same area as you as there’s so many coming through these days.
Hector, you’re an adopted Londoner after moving here from Catalonia itself when you were younger. What’s your favourite thing about growing up in London and being from North?
HB: For me, it was the diversity in the city. There was so many people that I met from different walks of life. In Spain, the culture was a lot more conservative compared to here. London has allowed me to express myself and be the way I want to be. That’s the thing I love the most about London. Reiss, who do you think has better style today – Ainsley or Hector? What would you style them in?
RN: I think it’s different man. For me, Hector’s setting the trend for style.
HB: Everyone’s got their own style man, everyone’s doing different things. I’d say our players would go to the same shopping center and would pull out completely different things. Everyone in our squad has different drip, and just because you wouldn’t wear it doesn’t mean it won’t look good on someone else. Like I was just saying to Ainsley, I wouldn’t actually wear that jacket he has on, but it looks sick on him. Everyone’s got different styles and body shapes, so it just depends really.
Ainsley and Reiss, would you want to be styled by Hector?
RN: You know what… I’ve lowkey been being styled by Hector for a minute! (laughs)
HB: You know, it’s something that I actually am passionate about. I’m always on the lookout for stuff that will suit other people as well as myself, so I’ll know stuff that will look good on Reiss but not as good on Ainsley, for example. It’s a good challenge trying to dress someone that isn’t me too. It’s cool though, Reiss asks me sometimes “Bro, does this look good with this?” and I’m always like, “Look, don’t worry bro...”
RN: Ah come on man, you’re mocking it! (laughs)
Hector, you’re obviously known for doing a lot of stuff outside of the game, which has inspired a lot of young ballers. Reiss and Ainsley, would you like to do more things outside of football?
RN: Well I have been trying to get into my guitar recently. I can only play a few chords at the minute, but I reckon one day I might try out some stuff alongside some production. Give it a few months… (laughs)
HB: Doing up Ed Sheeran and that… no but honestly it’s good for people to do different stuff when they come home from training and do something else. Sometimes football can get a little bit too much – if you have a 9-5, you know you’re gonna want to do something else when you get home from work, and that’s what footballers are like too.
AMN: Style is just one way in which you can express different feelings to how people see you on the pitch, how they perceive you in our workplace. So it’s good to showcase something different for people.
Hector, so-called “fans” have been asking you to cut your hair for years – how come you finally decided to get it trimmed?
HB: Man, if I listened to what some fans said about me I wouldn’t be anywhere near the place I’m in today. I just thought I’d switch the style up as I wanted a different look for when I come back from injury. But when it comes to my game, I know what I need to work on – and I don’t really listen to what other people are saying.
Reiss, how did you find your experience of playing in the Bundesliga last year? Do you think you’ve matured from the experience?
RN: Yeah it was different you know. I was playing under a different coach with Julian Nagelsmann – he’s a manager that’s always making a lot of tactical decisions during games, so it was a good experience playing in such a different set up. For me, I feel like I’ve definitely matured a lot as a player. I’m not always trying to do 1v1 play, I’m more about the link up play since being out there, and focussing on my runs in behind… stuff like that which have helped me develop as a player, and as a person too.
Are you looking forward to spending your time back in your hometown?
RN: Yeah I’m looking forward to being back…
HB: He’s been back anyway, he was always coming back last season, low key (laughs).
RN: You’re on to me today bro... that's your last strike! Nah but seriously man, it’s gonna be good to be back. Being around my friends and family all the time is important to me, and I’m looking forward to doing more of that next season.
What are your thoughts on Freddie Ljungberg coming in as Assistant Manager? What do you think that means for the likes of yourselves and Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock to start taking their chances and getting more game time?
AMN: It’s definitely important for players like us, having someone like that to look up to, in his position. He was one of the Invincibles, and he’s such a huge name in terms of Arsenal and their history, so he’s someone the youth players look up to a lot. To bring him in is huge for the youth players, as they’re more driven to see someone like him in the set up and looking out for us. I feel like he won’t be scared to throw us in the deep end, and having him alongside us is a great opportunity for us.
HB: He’s young as well, which is important. He just gets it. He’s one of the boys as a result. He’s been through it more recently, and we’re already sensing that from the early training sessions with him – it’s been good.
Ainsley, are you happy to carry on getting game time from full back or would you like to try and play further up the pitch next season in midfield?
AMN: I’m just happy to be getting more game time, wherever I’m playing. That’s what’s going to help me develop. I’m a winger naturally, but could also play in midfield. I’m versatile – so wherever I can get minutes, I’ll play.
How important is music to you on game day?
RN: Everyone’s got that one go to song that they stick on before game days. Mine at the minute is probably any MoStack track from the new album.
HB: Mine for absolutely ages was “Headlines” by Drake. I just used to get in the zone listening to that!
RN: Ozuna – “Baila Baila Baila” is my jam at the minute! You want a song that’s upbeat, to get you in the zone before games for sure.
There’s a lot of MCs that are Arsenal fans, with the likes of M Huncho, MoStack and J Hus all supporting The Gunners. Do you ever talk or link up with any of them?
RN: MoStack’s my guy. His new stuff is hard. It makes way more sense now, he’s evolving. There’s no one really I’m on a level with like that to link up with, but they’re always showing love on Instagram which is cool.
AMN: Yeah MoStack’s changed man – for the better. J Hus too. Everyone’s been waiting for him to bring his music back as we’ve all been missing it. Seeing him brought out by Drake was a mad moment!
HB: I think usually with MCs they’re usually the same age as us and in the same sort of spotlight, so there’s a lot of parallels to be made between us and them. We’re on similar levels, so we’re always showing love. I’m mates with Not3s even though he’s a Man United fan, and AJ Tracey’s always cool even though he’s a Spurs fan. When you meet them, you just recognise they’re on a really similar level to you.
Hector, you’ve had tracks penned in your name by Vibbar after you discovered Poet made music when we last spoke. Have you listened to it?
HB: Yeah, it’s a good song man! We spoke and he wanted a picture of me playing football when I was really young, so I had to dig up an old photo of me playing for Barcelona.
Do you rate MC’s like Dave, Headie One and Don Strapzy weaving in baller-inspired bars into their lyrics?
RN: Strapzy is hard man. When you listen to these guys and take time to deep what they’re saying, you realise how hard they actually are. Some of the word play is so cold.
HB: What Dave is doing at his age is incredible. His word play is just different to anyone else at the minute, too. You’ve also got to love that moment he had at Glastonbury with Alex. That was a crazy moment. Shout out Alex!
AMN: J Hus, MoStack, Dave… those three are leading the way for me at the minute.
What are all your expectations ahead of the new season? What position would you like to be in 12 months from now?
RN: I just want to get game time you know. I just want to get as much advice from my teammates as possible and build step by step from there, and hopefully get a really good season under our belts.
AMN: For me, it’s more improving on last season. It’s all about improving my consistency in my game to help the team win games.
HB: For me, it’s just getting back, first and foremost. Hopefully getting involved in the early part of next season and taking it from there. Then after that, it’s about dislodging this guy right here (puts arms around AMN) from that right back slot (laughs). But yeah friendly competition is what it’s all about. We’ve known each other for years, and we’ve always been supporting each other.
RN: Yeah, 100% man. As you saw from me and Jadon in the Bundesliga last season, it really helps to drive your own game and improve if you're being competitive with someone else you’re friends with.
Photography by Danika Magdelena.
Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Héctor Bellerín wear Arsenal's new 2019/20 Away Shirt, available to cop now from adidas.