What next for Ainsley Maitland-Niles?
By Rob Worthington
After a second yellow card for a reckless challenge against Aston Villa earlier in the season, it seemed as if Maitland-Niles’ time as a right-back had reached its ending and it appeared to many that his career at Arsenal could be dwindling to a disappointing conclusion. However, the Hale End graduate has looked inspired under Mikel Arteta, coming back into the right-back area and excelling in this inverted role. Despite this, Arteta was clearly left unsatisfied with him in this position, acquiring Cedric Soares late in the January window, who will surely be the one to provide Hector Bellerin with competition and cover in this position. This left question marks over Maitland-Niles’ Arsenal future once again, and begs the question, what actually is he?
The former England under-21 international has mentioned in the past that he believes his best position is as a wide attacker. He certainly possesses has the pace to play in this position but the major question mark over this proposal is whether he has the end product to become an effective and prolific winger. Personally, despite the sample size of him in this role being limited, I’m not sure he does. Maitland-Niles’ delivery from wide areas is unreliable and the Arsenal academy product has only scored three goals for the club during his three years in the first team. Nonetheless, improving wingers has been shown to be a strength of Mikel Arteta in the past as he has been credited for his work with regard to the progression of both Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling. So if anyone is going to turn AMN into a quality winger, it could be Arteta.
Of course, another option for Maitland-Niles is to establish himself as a top-quality right-back, but perhaps elsewhere. Of late, the 22-year-old has shown all the signs of being capable of making this position his own. Against Chelsea at the Emirates, he was immense. He made a season high of 6 tackles and against Manchester United, a season-high of 4 interceptions. It is undeniable that Maitland-Niles has improved dramatically under Arteta in this position. He also seems to be perfectly suited to the inverted right-back role which Pep Guardiola has been shown to prefer at Manchester City, which makes the Soares signing all the more confusing. If the Englishman works on his delivery from wide areas, which would allow him to contribute more offensively, he could develop into a top full-back at the top level.
One of Maitland-Niles’ best performances in an Arsenal shirt was in a defensive midfield role against Manchester United at Old Trafford in a narrow 2-1 defeat in the 2017/18 season. Arsène Wenger showed his confidence in AMN, by giving him a particularly senior role in a severely depleted Arsenal side and anyone who watched the game will remember that he dominated the middle of the park. He outplayed his opposite number, a certain Paul Pogba, and this indicated to many Arsenal fans that this would be his favoured position in the future. Since this game, Maitland-Niles has not played a single minute of football in this role for Arsenal- a wasted opportunity of developing a player of huge potential there? I think so.
In a 4-3-3 system, I think he could be the perfect right-sided central midfielder as his tidy passing, physicality and pace would allow him to play a Gini Wijnaldum-esque role under Arteta. I would love to see this experimented by our Spanish head coach, perhaps alongside Torreira as the central defensive midfielder and Xhaka as the left-sided central midfielder (although the Swiss may lack the mobility to play in this role).
If Maitland-Niles does fail to nail down a preferred role at Arsenal, another option for the youngster could be to strive to become a utility player, similar to the way Liverpool use James Milner. He was raised a Gooner so I’m sure he would have no problem with being a player who fills in where necessary rather than performing as a certain weekly starter. He has played either side of the pitch at wing-back and full-back, he has played in central midfield and on the wing, which shows that he would be more than capable of fulfilling such a role at Arsenal.
If not, collectively, Arsenal and AMN must work together to find his best position so he can concentrate on becoming the best footballer he can possibly be and attempt to cement a role in the Arsenal first team. He’s received a fair share of stick during his time in the first team, but there is undoubtedly a useful player in Ainsley Maitland-Niles.