35 minutes into Arsenal’s Premier League season there will have been a familiar feeling for their supporters. 1-0 down at home to Manchester City, Ainsley Maitland-Niles was forced to come off with an injury.
The Gunners had a new manager, yet seemingly hadn’t banished the fitness concerns from the days of Arsene Wenger.
Maitland-Niles had suffered a hairline crack in his calf bone. For someone so young it was a devastating setback.
However, after missing multiple months of the opening stages of the campaign, the youngster battled back to become a regular in Unai Emery’s Arsenal side.
The versatile 21-year-old started the term at left-back but has recently become the benefactor of Hector Bellerin’s own long-term setback, featuring on the right side of the defence.
It’s a position he’s been able to make his own, also benefiting from a lack of competition. Stephan Lichtsteiner has fallen further down the pecking order, whilst the less said about Carl Jenkinson the better.
But Maitland-Niles’ future at right back isn’t the concern. Instead, it’s his potential as a whole that should be worrying supporters.
When Arsenal signed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton back in 2011 the player was an exciting young winger whose career was heading down a similar path to that of Theo Walcott.
However, he never truly realised his potential in north London. Oxlade-Chamberlain had visions of playing in central midfield, an area of the team he was rarely afforded a chance in. Instead, he was forced to play as a more defensive minded player on the right.
As a result, he decided to pack his bags to join a far better team. His spell at Liverpool has been injury-hit but his glistening potential in the middle of the park was shown on a regular basis last term.
His best performance in an Arsenal shirt came in the middle of the park, scoring twice against Crystal Palace in February 2014.
It’s ironic, therefore, that one of Maitland-Niles’ best displays in the red and white of Arsenal have also come from that area of the pitch.
Against Manchester United in April 2018, he starred for Arsenal in a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford. Playing next to Granit Xhaka, he looked the more comfortable player. In the 90 minutes he was on the pitch, Maitland-Niles showed excellent discipline in both attacking and defensive phases of play.
Per WhoScored, he completed one key pass and boasted a pass success of 92%. He also completed two dribbles and made three tackles. It was an early glimpse of his quality.
But since that moment, he’s rarely been given a chance in midfield. Consequently, he’s been an inconsistent figure at right-back.
This has specifically been the case away from home. Against Leicester this term, he picked up a red card after being repeatedly beaten down the left by Ben Chilwell and James Maddison. He also looked out of his depth when the Gunners were beaten by Everton at Goodison Park.
But there have been some encouraging performances in that position too. When Arsenal beat Valencia at the Mestalla he was phenomenal.
His athletic ability was evident as he beat his man down the right before whipping the ball in for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to prod home one of Arsenal’s goals.
The worry, though, is that with Maitland-Niles regularly playing out of position, he may never realise his true potential. For all the wrong reasons, he’s at huge risk of becoming another Oxlade-Chamberlain.
He never settled in one position and, when Bellerin returns, Maitland-Niles’ role in the team could be up in the air again.
With Aaron Ramsey leaving Arsenal, they’ll need an athletic midfielder. Maitland-Niles boasts traits capable of replacing him in that aspect and there will be no better time for him to try and force his way into the Gunners’ midfield.
The former Ipswich loanee has a bright future but Arsenal must ensure it isn’t put in more danger. Another Oxlade-Chamberlain situation can be avoided but only if they work out where his future lies.
Arguably, it should be in midfield. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if the club tried to save money by keeping him as Bellerin’s deputy in defence.