Ainsley Maitland-Niles broke into the Arsenal team for the first time last year, covering as a left-back in the absence of Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal. He excelled and has done very well at right-back this year too. However, despite all the potential the youngster has been showing, a career at full-back is not where his future lies, and Arsenal’s tight transfer dealings could be costing him dearly.
Maitland-Niles enjoyed a period on loan at Ipswich under Mick McCarthy before returning to Arsenal and embracing his role as a wing-back/full-back; first under Arsene Wenger and now Unai Emery.
He’s one of those rare players who genuinely boasts tremendous attributes in all areas of his game, by having the physicality and intelligence needed with a cultured first touch to compliment it all. He has bags of skill but his most noticeable advantage is his confidence. For a young man, he never seems fazed or over-awed by the big occasion and appears perfectly comfortable with the level he’s playing at.
Unfortunately, Sunday’s game at Leicester saw him harshly sent off, though there’s no denying his inexperience played a part in it – he gave the referee a decision to make when he could have avoided the challenge altogether. For all his talent and potential, there’s a naivety that needs ironing out.
But are Arsenal the club to help him develop further? Or is he destined to enjoy a mediocre career before a mid-table move in two years’ time, as he looks back at what could have been?
Fans are quick to criticise players whilst forgetting where they once shone. Maitland-Niles is not a full-back, but he’s lulled fans into a false sense of security by putting in mature displays beyond his years, making many forget that he was ever a midfielder.
If the youngster ends up not fulfilling his potential, Arsenal have no one to blame but themselves. He has shown in the past that he’s a capable option in midfield, though Emery still opted to bring in summer signings Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira instead. The Spanish boss recognised that his side needed depth at right-back and decided that free transfer Stephan Lichtsteiner and Arsenal flop Carl Jenkinson were the answers to these problems.
That’s now left Maitland-Niles having to fill the void at right-back with Hector Bellerin suffering a season-ending injury and the other two defenders showing their lack of quality over the season, often costing their side in big games. Maitland-Niles is the only option Emery can trust.
If Arsenal hadn’t been so tight in the market by pursuing cheap options to find cover for Bellerin, perhaps Maitland-Niles wouldn’t be putting his midfield career on hold in order to fill to a huge gap left by the Spanish full-back. Ultimately, while the Englishman has the attributes to succeed in that role, his growth as a midfielder is stagnating.
Unfortunately it doesn’t seem Arsenal will give him the run in midfield he deserves, opting to use their plethora of other engine room options instead.
If the club had been smarter in the transfer market by signing a proper right-back who could be trusted to perform at the highest level, while perhaps shifting on deadwood like Mohamed Elneny, Maitland-Niles may well have already registered a few stellar midfield displays for Arsenal this season. Instead, he’s being judged week-in week-out in a position that isn’t even his own.