Ainsley Maitland-Niles is a Hale End academy graduate who has made 91 first-team appearances for his boyhood club at the age of 22. On the surface he seems like an academy success story, a player on an upward trajectory coming into the prime years of his career. However, dig a little deeper and you will find a player at a crucial crossroads in his Arsenal career. He seemed to have fallen out of favour with Mikel Arteta before football’s enforced break, finding himself completely frozen out after starting the Spaniard’s first 5 games in charge. Even David Ornstein said that there was a feeling at the club that it “could be done” for Maitland-Niles at Arsenal. But in the recent friendly tune-up game against Charlton Athletic he was finally granted an opportunity to play in his preferred central midfield role. Will this see Arsenal’s utility man be given the role he has long coveted in the side?
A promising youth midfielder:
To understand the formative stages of Ainsley’s career, I once again asked Arsenal youth expert Jeorge Bird for his insight on the Englishman’s time coming through the ranks.
“Although Maitland-Niles has had some good games at right-back, for the majority of his time as a youth player he was deployed in more advanced positions. He frequently played on the right wing, where he made excellent use of his trickery, and later moved into central midfield. That proved to be an inspired decision as he produced some outstanding performances there at youth level and it isn’t a coincidence that some of his best displays for the first-team have come there too. Given that Arsenal have various other midfield options, Maitland-Niles may find it difficult to get regular playing time in midfield, but it would certainly be interesting to see him get a chance there.”
Arsenal youth expert Jeorge Bird
In his break-out season he demonstrated this natural ability to play in central midfield with a cultured performance against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Squaring up against Paul Pogba in many of the midfield duels, Ainsley’s natural athleticism was evident, along with poise, control and a decent passing ability. However, despite the early promise in the middle of the park, the young Englishman has played there very rarely since his debut as a 17 year-old.
Becoming Arsenal’s jack of all trades:
Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ break-through as a starter for Arsenal would typify his career in the first-team to date. With Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac both injured, Arsene Wenger turned to the young Englishman to solve his defensive crisis at left back. And to his credit he performed well in an entirely unfamiliar role for a string of games. However, throughout the course of Wenger’s final season at the Emirates, Ainsley would be called upon to play left back, left wing-back, right back, right-wing back, and centre midfield. With his performance at Old Trafford coming in Wenger’s final few games, Maitland-Niles probably hoped that his career could kick on from this point in his preferred position.
But Unai Emery had other ideas, and he would go on to use the Englishman almost exclusively as a right back or right wing-back throughout the entirety of his time in charge. It’s fair to say that Maitland-Niles was a reasonably consistent performer during Emery’s time at the club, getting a lot of minutes particularly when Hector Bellerin suffered his ACL injury. He was especially effective as a right-wing back where he had more freedom to use his pace and power on the overlap. There were a few lapses in defensive concentration, and sometimes he seems so calm when on the pitch that it borders on lackadaisical. But overall he appeared to be growing into the full-back position.
Unfortunately there was a problem brewing and it never seemed far from the surface. James Benge describes it well in his piece for football.london:
“The right back spot was his for the taking… but as ever the question was whether the right back spot was what Maitland-Niles wanted… An opportunity was there for him at right-back but it was one he seemed unable to convince himself he wanted.”
In fact, in an unusual move for a young player at a big club, Ainsley has been rather outspoken on the matter.
“I’m not a defender. It’s not where I would choose to put myself in the team… It’s always nice to have one main position where you play, and everyone else gets to play in their main position, so hopefully it’s just a matter of time before I can do that too.”
Ainsley Maitland-Niles speaking to Sky Sports
How he has done under Arteta:
Initially, it seemed as though Mikel Arteta’s arrival had given new life to Maitland-Niles’ Arsenal career. He played the first 5 games of Arteta’s reign and was impressive in a new inverted fullback role. This unorthodox role, which Arteta clearly picked up while working under Pep Guardiola, actually seemed perfect for Ainsley as a player who sees himself in central midfield. We have seen the success of midfielders Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko while performing a similar task for Guardiola’s Manchester City. Maitland-Niles was able to step into midfield when in possession and form a midfield three, giving either Saka or Kolasinac the licence to bomb forward from their left back position.
Indeed the Arsenal boss seemed thrilled to have a player with the versatility required to play this role.
“Ainsley can play in various positions and do really well at full-back too. He’s a very useful player with great speed, good technique and passing ability.”
However, this would quickly change, and after those 5 consecutive starts, Maitland-Niles didn’t feature again in the league after 18th January, and played just 3 minutes in cup competitions. With Bellerin not yet fully fit, Arteta even resorted to using Sokratis in an awkward right back birth on a number of occasions, clearly signifying that Ainsley had fallen out of favour.
So what went wrong? Well it seemingly stems from issues of attitude and commitment to his role in the team, rather than problems with his performance. David Ornstein had this to say on his podcast for The Athletic:
“I heard some suggestions, a long time ago now, that [Maitland-Niles] had expressed a desire or a preference not to be playing at right-back, and that he favours a central midfield position. Mikel Arteta isn’t particularly receptive to players indicating where they want to play. They will play where they’re told to play, and for the good of the team.”
“Since then, I don’t know the exact conversations that have gone on, but he hasn’t been playing very much. One other suggestion I got was that he has been late for a couple of training sessions. Certainly, Arteta would not like that, given the discipline and behaviour and respect and culture that’s so important to him.”
“Some people around Arsenal feel that it could be done for Ainsley Maitland-Niles at Arsenal. We don’t know for a fact. I’m just reflecting suggestions I’ve heard.”
From the moment he arrived at Arsenal, Arteta was vocal about his belief in the “non-negotiable” standards that are required to play under his leadership. It is clear that at some point, Maitland-Niles began to fall short of the Spaniard’s demands on attitude, desire and commitment in training.
A shot at redemption:
One thing that is clear from Arteta’s tenure so far is that the young coach picks his players on merit. Dani Ceballos and Matteo Guendouzi have both been publicly called out by the coach for their application in training during his short time in charge. Ceballos, in particular, is a great example of Arteta’s merit-based approach to management. He had been ready to terminate his loan with Arsenal in January, after a tough first half of the season, however, he decided to throw himself into Arteta’s training sessions in an attempt to win over the new boss. The Athletic reported that he was one of the most impressive performers at Arsenal’s warm weather training camp in Dubai. Arteta immediately rewarded his application by starting him in all 3 of Arsenal’s consecutive Premier League victories before the break in play.
“He was injured and when he started to train I didn’t think he was fit enough. He completely changed his behaviour and trained like an animal.”
Mikel Arteta talking about Ceballos
The young Arsenal manager has shown himself to be ruthless but also fair. He will not think twice about freezing a player out of the squad if his non-negotiable standards are not met, but likewise he is not one to hold a grudge. The chance for redemption should be a huge encouragement for Maitland-Niles. Arteta has already publicly challenged the player to change his attitude:
“Ainsley needs to put his head down, work hard and show me everyday that he wants it more than anybody else.”
Perhaps this break came at a good time for the 22 year-old. We have heard that Arteta has held frequent zoom calls on a one-to-one basis with members of his squad. I would hope that the manager will have been able to relay exactly what he expects from the young Englishman and what he must do to feature in his plans going forward. I would also hope that he has be able to use this mini pre-season under his new coach to demonstrate a renewed application in training, much in the same way Ceballos did in Dubai.
Although we can’t read too much into a tune-up game against Charlton, the fact that Maitland-Niles started in central midfield for the first time since April 2018, was certainly an interesting development in his Arsenal career. I’ve spoken before about the lack of drive and power in Arsenal’s current midfield options, and Ainsley can certainly offer something different in that position. There is a reason why the club is persistently linked with Athletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey, we simply don’t have much of an athletic presence in the engine room of the team. Having looked at the Premier League fixture schedule, the games will come thick and fast, with Arsenal playing 3 away games in the first 6 days. The squad will be stretched to the limit and Maitland-Niles is one of the players who could perhaps stand to benefit from the level of squad rotation required to manage the load on the squad.
With Arsenal’s midfield crying out for an athletic presence and the club facing an frenetic fixture schedule to end the season, once again an opportunity has presented itself to Ainsley Maitland-Niles. It is now up to him to meet the levels required to make the position his own. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that his Arsenal career depends on it.