A regular during Unai Emery’s first season in charge of the Gunners, Ainsley Maitland-Niles has often been credited for his versatility as a player, having filled in for Arsenal as a left-back, right-back, wing-back, in midfield and even further up the wing, as and when required.
Being labelled as “Jack of all trades but master of none”, Maitland-Niles has faced a positional struggle under Mikel Arteta. There is, of course, the ever-present question of where he should permanently play, in midfield or at right-back?
Under Unai Emery, Maitland-Niles made a place for himself, being a crucial part of the manager’s system as a right wing-back. This is reflected by his presence in Arsenal’s 2018/19 Europa League run, starting both the quarter-final legs against Napoli and playing the full 90 minutes in each, playing the full 90 minutes for both semi-final legs against Valencia as well as playing the full 90 minutes in Arsenal’s miserable 4-1 Europa League final loss to rivals Chelsea. Maitland-Niles made a total of 30 appearances in all competitions in the 2018/19 season, with five-goal contributions (2 goals and 3 assists).
With things having gone well for Maitland-Niles in the previous season and having secured a first-team position for himself at Arsenal, where did it all go wrong this season?
There are several factors resulting in his exclusion from the first team. Hector Bellerin returning from a long-term injury and fitting into the right-back position, Maitland-Niles having his heart set on playing as a midfielder for Arsenal, his recent falling-out with Arteta and the manager’s tactical switches including a change of formation from a back-three to back-four are just a few of them.
With the former England U-21 international seemingly wanting to play in midfield and not as a full-back, it begs the question does he have a future at Arsenal in midfield under Arteta?
There have been reports of him being sold for upwards of £20million to fund new transfers or even a new Aubameyang contract, so his future in North London is not fully guaranteed and if these reports are anything to go by, it seems he is clearly quite dispensable for Mikel Arteta and his future plans.
In Arsenal’s recent 3-0 away defeat at the hands of Manchester City, he did come on as a substitute for Guendouzi in midfield, potentially signalling his chances of still salvaging a future under Arteta in his preferred position. Previously, he featured from the midfield for the two friendlies ahead of the City game – against Charlton and Brentford.
If we go far back to the 2017/18 season, in a rotated Arsenal side away at Manchester United (in the Premier League), Maitland-Niles played a pivotal role in the midfield and received rave reviews for his performance, despite Arsenal losing the game. This helped him showcase his potential quality and what he can bring to the team if allowed to play in a midfield role.
In early March, Arteta commented on Maitland Niles and his situation, saying:
”Ainsley needs to put his head down and work hard and show me every day in training that he wants it more than anyone else, he wants to play for this club and fight for his place”.
As evident from this, if Ainsley Maitland-Niles can convince Arteta of his quality and dedication, we might see more of the talented youngster at Arsenal, in his favoured midfield role but all of that needs to happen and fast. For a 20 year old who has most of his life ahead of him, the irony of time running out on his life at Arsenal should not be lost on him.