Where does AMN fit in at Arsenal?
After struggling for regular football this season, Ainsley Maitland-Niles opted to join relegation battlers West Bromwich Albion, on loan until the end of the season – but can the 23 year-old still fit into Arteta’s plans?
A Hale End graduate, Maitland-Niles made his senior Arsenal debut in 2014 at the tender age of 17, coming off the bench against Galatasaray in the Champions League. After replacing Aaron Ramsey at halftime, AMN became the second youngest player to represent Arsenal in the UCL, behind Jack Wilshere. The following season (15/16), the youngster was loaned to Ipswich Town for further development, where he made 32 appearances in all competitions and was described as ‘outstanding’ by manager Mick McCarthy.
After featuring in every game of England’s U20 World Cup triumph in summer 2017, Maitland-Niles finally made his breakthrough to the Arsenal first team in the subsequent 17/18 season. In Wenger’s final season as Arsenal manager, AMN made 28 appearances across all competitions, building up a reputation as a ‘Jack of all Trades’ – he was deployed as a Left Back, Right Back, Right-Wing Back, Central Midfielder, Defensive Midfielder and Left Midfielder.
Following an impressive breakthrough campaign, the versatile player was rewarded with a new long-term contract in June 2018. He was also pinpointed as a ‘promising young talent’ by Unai Emery, after the Spanish coach succeeded Arsène Wenger at the helm. A hairline fracture on the opening day of the 18/19 season saw AMN miss several months through injury, but he was able to regain a starting berth at right-wing back following Bellerín’s knee injury at Chelsea, in January 2019. Ainsley finished the season on 30 appearances, racking up 2 goals and 3 assists in the process.
A drop in form after Arteta’s arrival saw our number 15 struggle for game time – playing just 2 minutes (1 minute against Portsmouth in the FA Cup and 1 against Olympiakos in the UEL) in the 6 weeks prior to the suspension of football in early March, as a result of the ongoing pandemic. However, his performances dramatically improved in the latter stages of the campaign; AMN was a vital cog in Arsenal’s impressive end to the 19/20 season, earning a first England call-up whilst attracting several potential suitors. A £15m summer move to Wolves was blocked by Arteta due to the importance of the 23 year-old. But AMN could not start the 20/21 season in the same vein of form, delivering several lacklustre performances, and struggling to get game time as a result. Maitland-Niles decided to join Big Sam’s Baggies on loan on deadline day in search of regular football.
Speaking to talkSPORT, the England international recently explained the reasoning behind his move – “It was just more of a chance for me to show what I’m capable of other than sitting on the bench for the rest of the season and rotting away. The main reason was being able to play as there’s nothing better than playing.” The loan move also gives Maitland-Niles the opportunity to reinforce his England credentials ahead of the Euros this summer, while also gaining a chance to impress in his favoured position of central midfield.
The 23 year-old has played every minute of West Brom’s 6 Premier League games since his arrival, although he did not get off to the best of starts. Arsenal supporters urged AMN to ‘face reality’ about his favoured position after a poor showing in his debut against Tottenham. But his recent performances in the heart of midfield have been labelled ‘fantastic’ by Sam Allardyce, who has credited AMN and West Brom’s other new recruits with invigorating the side.
Maitland-Niles is convinced he will return to the Emirates to fight for his place next season – but where will he fit in?
If Arteta continues to field his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, AMN could fight for one of the two positions at the base of midfield. Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka, Mohammed Elneny and the on-loan Dani Ceballos currently compete for these positions. They will be joined by Lucas Torreira and Mattéo Guendouzi once their loan spells with Atlético Madrid and Hertha Berlin come to an end. A potential summer shake-up could see Elneny, Ceballos, Torreira and Guendouzi all leave the club – so could Arteta see AMN as a midfield candidate? Or will Ainsley have to settle for minutes as a full-back?
The remainder of the season will prove crucial in Maitland-Niles’ career; he finally has a chance to prove himself as a central midfielder, so must grab it with both hands. If he fails to impress in his favoured position, AMN must accept a career at full-back, or he may not feature in Arteta’s plans
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