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The Curious Case of Ainsley Maitland-Niles

By Max Mishcon

Beneath the gross underbelly of a football club that’s enduring it’s worst period for the best part of three decades is an abundance of talented and exuberant youth.

I’m just as much of a sceptic as anyone regarding the strategy of hiring former players as staff members, but where Arteta and Edu may have underwhelmed, Per Mertesacker has excelled. If there’s one thing we have going for us, it’s that our academy is pumping out not just special footballers, but exemplary young men too. See my fellow writer Rob Worthington’s tweet on just how strong our foundation of young players is.

One player who hasn’t made this hypothetical XI however, is Hale End’s oldest graduate in the Arsenal squad: Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

AMN has been a Gunner since the age of six yet has never succeeded in cementing himself as a starter, despite playing under three different managers. This failure to nail a spot in the team has led to many praising him for his versatility, playing in either full-back spot, central midfield or his original position on the right-wing.

Making his debut in 2014, The Edmonton-raised player has made it consistently clear that his preferred position is central midfield, despite his best performances occurring at right-back. Wenger’s praise for him appears to confirm this is the case, too, stating he is “A good defender” and that “He has a good sense of one against one” and “has very quick recovery runs”. Performances against Mo Salah in 2018 and the 2020 FA Cup Final win spring to mind as he showcased just how good he can be.

With that being said, the narrative of AMN suggests he’s still a prospect, despite turning 24 in August. I know Pedri memes are rinsed, but Maitland-Niles has made fewer career appearances for Arsenal than Pedri made last season for Spain and Barcelona.

He currently sits with an FA Cup winners’ medal and 5 England caps, which is very commendable, but I doubt the 24-year-old is comfortable nor content with his current state of affairs.

He is a fascinating footballer with an aura of charm to him, although he’s quite an enigma. Between his salivating penalties and his mum living in a storage unit, the Englishman possesses a fascinating blend of expressiveness and stubbornness. To call his playing style casual would be an understatement - it can often look as if he doesn’t want to be on the pitch because he appears so unbothered.

I feel like this perception of laziness may have led to the feuds with Arteta, one more recently and one right at the start of his tenure. But AMN undoubtedly is, and still can be, one of the league's best right-backs given his physicality and skill defensively which Wenger once alluded to. What initially held him back was a preference to play higher up the pitch, so much so that he went on loan to West Brom, which wasn’t a success for any of the three parties involved. The thing now holding him back is Arteta’s preference to play 4 other players ahead of him.

The most recent plot twist in the ‘AMN show’ involved him publicly ‘@ing’ Arsenal, begging for a move to play regular football.

Reports have insisted that the situation is resolved, but his future is now as uncertain as it’s ever been.

When we look at what Wenger left us in 2018, we can safely say that Ozil was the quintessential ‘Wenger player’, but I feel like Maitland-Niles was in his own way too. He’s a flawed player, often suffering from a lack of concentration, but he had such a swagger to the way he played, an almost aggressive elegance to him, and when he did, you could tell just how much he loved being on the pitch.

We would all like to be seeing AMN flourishing as our attacking outlet from the right by now, but the reality is that football is a cruel, complicated and ruthless industry where dreams are more often crushed than fulfilled. We all hope there’s one more redemption arc in the Ainsley Maitland-Niles tale, but this feels like the start of a long and disappointing goodbye to what could’ve been maybe not an Arsenal legend, but a real cult hero.

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