Where Next for Ainsley Maitland-Niles? Does the Versatile Englishman have a Future at Arsenal?
By Alex Trad
Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ journey through the ranks at Arsenal has been nothing short of compelling, to say the least. Nearly 6 years ago, the Englishman marked his first appearance for the Gunners with victory away at Galatasaray in a routine Champions League encounter, having penned his first professional contract several weeks prior.
Throughout his lengthy tenure, Arsene Wenger and his personnel forged a productive footballing environment that harboured young talent and elevated them to the height of their respective abilities. Maitland-Niles’ case was no different. Six years and 96 first-team appearances later, however the 23-year old and the club are weighing the possibility of both parting ways.
Whilst his debut arrived in late-2014, Maitland-Niles never truly broke into the first-team picture until the 2017-18 season, Arsene Wenger’s final season at the helm. Persistent injury issues to Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal forced Wenger into selecting a makeshift lineup in a crucial Premier League clash with Jurgen Klopp’s swashbuckling Reds. Although having served as central midfielder all throughout his Emirates career to date, it was the young Maitland-Niles who was shifted out to left-back.
Arsenal fought back from 2 down to take a 3-2 lead, before squandering the advantage late on. A key talking point of what proved an exhilarating 90 minutes of football was Maitland-Niles’ strong defensive and attacking display after struggling to mark his presence against the likes of Mohamed Salah and co., in the early stages of the first period. Since then, rarely have we seen the England U21 star occupy his preferred CM role.
And despite an encouraging display at the heart of the pitch against a strong Manchester United side the following April, Maitland-Niles yet remained at full-back throughout Unai Emery’s first campaign as gaffer. In fact, a worrying ACL injury to Hector Bellerin in January 2019 forced the Spaniard into rotating his squad, starting with the right-back position.
Around this time Emery also began employing an unfamiliar 3-4-2-1 formation, with wing-backs either side of a back three given the liberty to attack freely and be relieved of their defensive duties when doing so. Not before long Maitland-Niles was excelling in his new role, providing a respectable amount of assists to our forwards and playing a key role in our difficult run to the Europa League final. Ultimately a poor defensive showing all-round cost the Gunners European elation and Champions League football for the following season, although there was some heart to take from the performances of our Academy prospects.
With Bellerin yet recovering from his severe knee injury and no right-backs acquired during the Summer window, Maitland-Niles began the 2019/20 season again resigned to play in a position he quite clearly didn't feel comfortable in. Speaking to Sky Sports last September, he urged our fans to recognize the difficult nature of being forced out of position. “I’m not a defender so I do get a lot of stick about my defending being poor , but it’s something I'm learning and have been learning for a couple years now.”
To the disappointment of much of the fanbase, he then added that he’d prefer a return to his preferred position in the centre of the pitch: “It’s always nice to have one main position where you play, and everyone gets to play in their main position, so hopefully it’s just a matter of time before I can do that too.” Not exactly the words that fill neither the manager nor the supporters with confidence regarding Maitland-Niles place in the team.
A hit and miss start to the season ended in Emery’s dismissal, at which point Freddie Ljungberg renewed confidence in the England international. Shortly after, with Arteta’s appointment came massively improved performances for Maitland-Niles. A brilliant showing against Manchester United springs to mind. As such, it came to the surprise of many that Maitland-Niles was immediately demoted to the bench in Bellerin’s stead in January, and only earned sporadic starts from that point until the end of the season.
One can only draw hypothetical conclusions that justify Arteta’s decision to do so, although it’s likely that their differences clashed and culminated in a strained relationship. After the Restart, a fully fit Bellerin and winter recruit Cedric Soares interchanged at right-back, consigning Maitland-Niles to the fringe of the squad with no guarantee of a return to the first-team.
Arteta elected to deploy Maitland-Niles on the left flank of a flat 4 in a new 3-4-3 formation against Manchester City and Chelsea in the semi-final and final of the FA Cup, respectively, registering two phenomenal displays in the process. In a post-match press conference following our Cup triumph, he explained how much the victory means to the club and exactly what Mikel Arteta’s guidance has brought to what was once a depleted squad. A display of maturity and quality from the 23-year old.
Despite that, Sky Sports News released a report the other day suggesting a potential departure for Maitland-Niles, with Brighton, Leicester and Sp*rs being the 3 likeliest destinations. It appears as though the end of Maitland-Niles’ time in N5 is near, and that his desires are to broaden his horizons and fight for regular first-team football elsewhere.
Personally I hope he stays, as there’s still a quality footballer in him. With proper honing and the right mentality surrounding the club as a whole, Maitland-Niles could well nail down a spot in Mikel Arteta’s lineup within a few seasons. Unlikely though this may seem, it’s all up in the air at the time of writing. Expect many more twists in this enduring transfer saga...