The date is January 18th, 2020. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has just completed yet another mature 90 minutes for Arsenal at right-back, highlighting both his importance to and improvement under Mikel Arteta since his arrival at the helm in December. It was Maitland-Niles’ 5th Premier League start in a row with his new manager on the touchline.
Nobody would have predicted how the next five games would have panned out for him.
Since that strong performance against Sheffield United, Maitland-Niles has completely disappeared from the Arsenal lineup, failing to even make the squad on four occasions in the league. His omission was almost inexplicable — the improvements he had made in such a short span of time were so encouraging that he appeared to be one of the first names on the teamsheet.
The following game, Hector Bellerin returned from injury and started in his place away at Chelsea. He capped an assured comeback with a fine equalizer in the closing moments of the match. Many expected Maitland-Niles to return to the side in the following game, an FA Cup 3rd Round tie against Bournemouth. However, he featured for just one minute as a late substitute. Since then, his appearances have been limited to very-late cameos against Leeds and Olympiakos in the FA Cup and Europa League respectively.
What has gone wrong for the academy graduate?
Some could place blame on Arteta, arguing that he has been unfairly dropped by the Spaniard. Others could attribute his omission to the return of Hector Bellerin. However, his absence is likely a result of neither of these two factors, but instead down to the player himself. And he’s the only man who can remedy the issue.
When Arteta was asked about Maitland-Niles, he said, “Ainsley needs to put his head down and work hard. 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.” Arteta’s stance was a clear message to his player: show more commitment to the side and you will be rewarded. If not, you won’t play.
Maitland-Niles’ somewhat lax attitude has been apparent on numerous occasions. In an interview at the beginning of the season, he stated that he was “not a defender,” while David Ornstein has also reported that the Englishmen had shown up late for training on numerous occasions.
His own opinion on his situation is clear. He sees his natural position, and his future, in midfield. For him, he is just ‘filling-in’ at right-back, rather than making the position his own. But that’s exactly what he can do with a change in attitude.
Here’s why I believe Ainsley Maitland-Niles should commit to the right-back position, and why he can make it his own at Arsenal:
Not too long ago, the full-back position was seen as unfavorable. As Jamie Carragher said, “No one wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville.” Although his statement was meant facetiously, it isn’t incorrect. However, that view has shifted dramatically since, and full-backs are now some of the most coveted players on the planet. Maitland-Niles, especially under Arteta, is suited perfectly for this role.
In the first few games with the Spaniard in the hot seat, his preferred shape and system when attacking became clear, and AMN’s role was just as evident. Highlighted by the pictures below, Maitland-Niles’ role as right-back was to tuck inside as an extra central midfielder, allowing Saka on the opposite side to bomb forward and create a five-man-attack.
In forming this overload in the midfield, Arsenal are able to attack in numbers while still retaining their shape and control in the middle of the park. As an inverted fullback, Maitland-Niles spends the majority of his time in the half space, essentially playing as a right-sided holding midfielder. The system plays to his strengths and enables him to occupy a position he is very comfortable with when Arsenal have the ball. Not only that, but he is far more suited to this role than Hector Bellerin — who has excelled at right-back in the past when given license to bomb forward, often hugging the flank in the process.
Today’s elite fullbacks are not only strong defenders, but are also dangerous going forward and sound technicians, capable of passing assuredly and playing under pressure. Maitland-Niles ticks all of these boxes, and still has room to improve in every capacity. In the below clips, he showcases both his ability in possession and comfort on the ball, most notably in tight spaces.
Some have been critical of his defending in the past, but during his run in the team he showed how much he had improved that side of his game — nullifying Wilfried Zaha when Arsenal visited Selhurst Park.
One aspect of his game he must work on is avoiding occasional lapses in concentration — an especially important trait as a defender, when giving the ball away often proves to be costly. Despite a terrific performance against Manchester United in January, he did misplace the occasional pass, leaving his side vulnerable in the process.
With that being said, it is clear that Maitland-Niles has more strengths to his game than he does weaknesses. If Arteta decides to continue with the shape he has employed at the club since his arrival, then there is no better man for the right-back position than the young Englishman. His fate, however, rests in his hands. The sooner he realizes his potential in this role and the luxury it gives him to occupy midfield spaces, the quicker he can establish himself in the position. If he doesn’t, his days at the club could be numbered. He would be smart to embrace the role, make it his own, and become part of the new, exciting era of adventurous full-backs.