English football is in a renaissance with improved academies across the country as Arsenal’s fabled Hale End academy is also churning out high level talent. Emile Smith-Rowe, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson have put in encouraging performances in professional football this season. Ainsley Maitland-Niles joined Alex Iwobi as an established member of the first team playing in a variety of positions. The 21-year-old joined Arsenal’s academy at the age of 6 as he has consistently adapted to the demands placed on him in a variety of positions throughout his fledgling career.
Maitland – Niles joined Arsenal as a striker and has played as a winger, midfielder and is now earning the trust of Unai Emery as a right wing-back in the stead of Hector Bellerin. The youngster made his professional debut against Galatasary in the UEFA Champions League, replacing Aaron Ramsey at half-time. He played in a midfield double-pivot with Gedion Zelalem as he allowed the American to burst forward while shouldering the physical responsibilities of the duo. In Arsene Wenger’s final season, the Londoner filled in as a utility man at left-back as well as in midfield as he established himself as a fully-fledged first teamer. Ivan Gazidis alluded to the fact that Emery would like to work with Maitland-Niles especially after watching his performances extensively.
"If we were speaking about one of our young players, if we targeted Ainsley Maitland-Niles for example, Unai knows Ainsley," said Gazidis to Sky Sports News. "He's watched him, he's familiar with his patterns of play, his capabilities, he's very excited about his potential and was able to talk about how excited he was to work with Ainsley, to develop him as a player."
The Hale End product still had to recover from a hairline crack in his calf bone which kept him out for three months at the start of Emery’s tenure. The Englishman’s background as a central midfielder has allowed him to adjust to the attacking and positional demands of a modern-day wing-back well. When the opposition is in possession on the opposite flank, Maitland-Niles will tuck in to make interceptions in a switch ball situation. If Arsenal manage to win possession with Maitland-Niles in central midfield, the wing-back is capable of playing accurate passes and lobs to enable counter-attacks and rapid breaks.
The England youth international, thrives in 1v1s in the opposition half as his quick feet allow him to beat the opposition fullback. One of Maitland-Niles’ favoured moves is a skill that allows midfielders to weave out of tight spaces in Michael Laudrup and Andres Iniesta’s patented croqueta. Against Watford, he had a moment where he was hemmed into tight quarters to shift the ball from his favoured right-foot to his left to skip past an opponent while he used it to earn an assist against Valencia in the Europa League semi-final. He took on a chipped free-kick from Granit Xhaka to use the move to earn him a yard of space to execute an accurately weighted and rolled near post delivery for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to slide and tap in at the near post.
As a wing-back without a natural winger, Maitland-Niles is used to establish width on the pitch with timed runs on the overlap which he has adapted to well. He is a hulking physical presence with broad shoulders and pace which allows him to cover his flank with tenacity. The 21-year-old will move out to the flank when Arsenal are in possession as he becomes an out-ball for the right sided centre-back while his natural right-footedness allows him to trap and release the ball quickly and effectively. He thrives at being involved in passing moves in the right lateral zone and the half-space as he can play chips into the pocket or innate one-touch passes down the line.
Against Napoli, he won possession for Aaron Ramsey to work a move for Mesut Ozil to play it out wide as Alexandre Lacazette crossed for the right wing-back to tee-up a Ramsey tap in to open the scoring. This move exhibited the extra dimension that Maitland-Niles brings to Arsenal attacks due to the fact that he can make mazy driving runs off his flank as he can also make underlapping runs to receive the ball in the half-space when a teammate is positioned outside his right shoulder.
However, the multi-functional wing-back excels mostly as a combination player with his quick feet and innate sense of courageous distribution to help his team progress into the opposition half. His ability in combinations is not just imperative to evading pressure but also in the final third when teams are in low blocks and have Arsenal matched man to man in the wide areas as Maitland-Niles frequently plays a pass to continue his run and drive into space. Arsenal have become a much better counter-pressing team under Unai Emery than under Arsene Wenger as their 21-year-old homegrown utility man is effective at pushing forward to win possession in the opposition half on his flank.
Emery’s 3-4-1-2/3-4-2-1 switches to a very narrow 5-3-2 in the defensive phase as their right-wing-back is not granted adequate defensive support when the ball is switched over to his flank. Arsenal’s midfield is poor at shifting their midfield block onto the other side of the field as Maitland-Niles can be caught in 2v1 situations and left exposed on his flank. Against Everton, Arsenal spent longer periods of the first half in their defensive shape as Maitland-Niles was pinned back. For all the plaudits of his well-rounded attacking repertoire, Maitland-Niles will need to improve when he spends longer periods of games in his own half as Arsenal’s shape can allow him to be pinned back.
To truly be a long-term challenger at any of the wing-back positions, Maitland-Niles must also improve his decision making as he makes challenges in haste and can concede pointless fouls. Against Valencia, there was a moment where he instinctively sensed a pass coming into his channel as his positioning was sound, but he dove to ground in an attempt to intercept possession as the ball rolled past him and onto his winger who was in an oasis of space to run at the wide centre-back.
Maitland-Niles possesses the tools to become a high-level fullback as there was another instance where he was beaten by Jose Gaya only to use his long limbs to recover and win possession from the Spanish left-back. He will need to improve his situational awareness of when to show wingers to the by-line and when to show them inside as he frequently allows wingers to make the step past his left shoulder to cut inside when his midfielders are not in position yet.
“I’m still adapting to [the position] but the manager and coaching staff are helping me a lot at the moment,” Maitland-Niles told football.london in March. “My best qualities are going forward, creating. I’ve spoken to the manager and he seems to think the same as me. When Hector comes back maybe it’ll be a good challenge for me and him. It all depends on how he comes back. Hector is a fantastic player and I wouldn’t want to force anybody out of the team, it’s more about healthy competition with him.”
Stephan Lichsteiner was signed in the summer to provide experienced full-back cover for Bellerin as Maitland-Niles has done well to establish future competition with the Spaniard. Injuries to Mathieu Debuchy allowed Bellerin to ensure himself a first-team place as Arsenal’s first choice right-back while the 24-year-old will now face competition from his English peer. Both are modern wing-backs symbolising the development of the position with the young Spaniard joining Arsenal as a winger while Maitland-Niles has moved to the position as a midfielder. Arsenal ensure longevity at the position through two graduates from their prestigious Hale End academy.