Centre-back, right-back, left-back, left wing-back, right wing-back, defensive midfielder, central midfielder, right winger.
Those are all the positions where Ainsley Maitland-Niles played for Arsenal since his debut away at Galatasaray in 2014. His breakthrough season happened 3 years later, playing 28 games in Arsène Wenger’s final season at the club. He played in a variety of roles, centre-back in a 3-4-3 in preseason, left-back throughout the end of 2017, central midfielder against Östersunds and right-back in the spring as Arsenal rotated heavily between Europa League fixtures, a solid season capped off with a MOTM performance in central midfield at Old Trafford in april.
This season has been more difficult for him, a bit of the “second season syndrome” that has hit Iwobi and Holding hard in recent seasons, but the potential is still there, and Bellerin’s injury offers him a chance to stamp his name on a spot in Arsenal’s starting XI, even if it’s not his position in the longer term. Young players have often broken through due to injuries to starters, Bellerin got a chance in the first-team after Debuchy got 2 long-term injuries in his first season.
His good form was rewarded with a new long-term deal when Unai Emery arrived at the club, new deal, new squad number (from #30 to #15), AMN was ready to step up as an important part of the squad. With Sead Kolasinac injured and Nacho Monreal lacking match fitness, the start of the Premier League against Man City was a chance to stake his claim at left-back. Unfortunately, after 35 minutes, a broken leg put an abrupt end to that window.
The issue with versatile players is that they can help in numerous positions but they’re not irreaplacable in any of those, it was always going to be a long way back for Maitland-Niles, one that is underway, and one worth looking at.
AMN returned from injury in november in the 0-0 draw against Sporting Portugal, starting once again all the way down the pecking order in most positions, with Sead Kolasinac making the left-back position his own under Emery, Bellerin performing on the right, and Mkhitaryan being an important cog of the system even when playing poorly.
He was still trusted to start at Anfield in december, where he scored and was the only player with Alex Iwobi to not be scared of the occasion, starting on the right side of a 3-man line behind Aubameyang.
The ability to play in numerous positions seamlessly is often a sign of an above average footballing brain, AMN clearly understands the game, he’s a singular blend of physicality, technique and intelligence, capable of closing down a shooting angle from the left edge of his own box as well as making a run to the back post to score at Anfield. He can take on a man, defend on a winger, press, track back, dribble, pass, he has great recovery pace, his skillset is close to the full package.
However, he hasn’t always performed to the level he can, he has lapses in concentration that could end up costing him and the team, his recovery pace allowed him to make up for it at full-back but if he is to play further forward or in midfield, he can’t misplace simple passes that aren’t beyond his technical ability.
Unai Emery doesn’t seem to be keen on using him in his preferred box-to-box role (although AMN has recently talked about playing as a winger in the longer term), using more defensive-minded partnerships in order to free his forwards to press and make things happen going forward. His athleticism suggests that he will mostly be used in wider roles, in the front line or the back line.
The 2-1 win at Huddersfield in early february was overshadowed by the waves of abuse Maitland-Niles received on social media, even though he gave an assist in that game. Abuse to which he responded with a pinch of irony.
In a world where everything is chopped and changed easily for something more flashy or expensive this isn’t too surprising but it makes for a depressing sight that a 21-year old academy graduate would be subject to so much abuse or “constructive criticism” after a good performance with an assist and just a few mistakes, sloppy mistakes due to too much passivity on the ball, but nothing shocking from a young player.
Just like Alex Iwobi, they have been at the club since they were childs, came through the ranks and managed to make a place for themselves in their boyhood club’s squads, yet they have come under lots of criticism in recent months, often being portrayed as lacking any quality to make it at Arsenal despite being highly rated by both Arsène Wenger and Unai Emery.
Injury niggles and illness have stopped him from a continued run in the team in recent weeks but he returned to the squad for the North London Derby at Wembley and ahead of a decisive part of the season regarding CL qualification. He is expected to start at right-back at Rennes in the Europa League, facing Ismaïla Sarr, a good test for a player reaching a key period of his young career. With Bellerin out until at least next october, Arsenal need someone to step up at right-back, and with a restricted budget, an academy graduate taking hold of the spot would be a great outcome for all parties.
At 21, Maitland-Niles still has time on his side, and his versatility will be an asset for him and the club, but this is a massive opportunity for him, one that could make the difference between him being an important part of Arsenal’s future and him being a former young player that couldn’t quite make it.
He has all the tools to make it.
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