Arsene Wenger announced that along with 17-year-old winger Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles would feature more regularly in the senior side next season early last month.
It was a refreshing boost for the club after a poor season and one which has provided both, especially Maitland-Niles, a golden opportunity to excel after first making his debut in their UEFA Champions League victory over Galatasaray during the 2014/15 campaign.
Who is Ainsley Maitland-Niles?
Born in Goodmayes, Ilford, Maitland-Niles is an Academy product at Arsenal having joined the club as a six-year-old. He signed his first professional contract in October 2014, having broken into the u21 side as a 16-year-old.
At 17 years and 102 days old, he became the second youngest player to represent Arsenal in the Champions League, behind Jack Wilshere after replacing Aaron Ramsey at half-time during their 3-0 group stage victory in Turkey.
He has made over 30 international appearances for England at youth level, from u17 level to u20s where he currently plays under Paul Simpson.
What is his Style of Play?
Maitland-Niles has adapted his game well over time as he’s matured and benefited from a range of different experiences, namely a loan spell at Ipswich Town and more recently playing u23 football under Steve Gatting in the club’s youth Academy.
He used to prefer playing as a tricky winger who loved beating opponents in one-on-one battles for possession, creating chances and providing a viable attacking threat for teammates to benefit from.
However, an eagerness to succeed has seen him tried and tested in a range of different positions as he’s keen for his chance centre-stage. Playing in a central midfield role, as well as making senior appearances at right-back have helped him develop a deeper understanding for the defensive side of football too.
He’s still a genuine attacking threat from midfield but doesn’t shy away from his defensive duties either.
What are his Strengths?
Maitland-Niles’ ability to play in a range of different positions stems from the fact he has an abundance of attributes suited to different roles.
For instance, his blistering speed and acceleration made him tough to thwart as a winger in the Academy. Dribbling is an important component too, allowing him to create a yard of space before looking for available teammates or deciding to go alone.
He continues to utilise both wherever he plays, whether that be as a central midfielder or at right-back. Unafraid of challenges, he has gradually gained a reputation for tough-tackling in the youth ranks and his unapologetic nature is both ruthless and helps add spice to the mix.
His performance as part of a midfield trio alongside Oxlade-Chamberlain and Reine-Adelaide against Southampton in the EFL Cup in January drew plaudits. He completed more passes, made more tackles and interceptions than anyone else on the pitch.
It’s these types of displays which justify why he deserves a first-team breakthrough and given Arsenal’s everchanging squad depth, you can understand why it wasn’t granted sooner.
Reliable, technically gifted but equally determined, his presence is reassuring in a defensive-minded sense and he’s also a leader to teammates.
This quote just shows the type of person Ainsley is, when comparing his Championship experiences with Academy football:
“In that sense, playing Under-23s is really different to first-team football. Now, it’s about me using that experience, applying it to under-23 football, and also sharing those experiences with team-mates. It’s now my responsibility to show them what’s right from wrong and help them push on in their careers.”
Having captained both club and country at youth level to date, he was part of England’s u20 World Cup triumph in South Korea earlier this summer and was given free roam to be tenacious and a handful.
What are his Weaknesses?
As for his weaknesses, he doesn’t have many. His lack of consistency at times was highlighted after Christmas during his loan spell with Ipswich, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise considering most youngsters go through a phase where they’re not performing at their best.
It was good for him to experience that so early in his career as it just reinforces the belief that for someone so highly-rated, it’s important he does more to prove his worth on a regular basis and not just in flashes.
There used to be highlight reel type dribbles and take-ons attempted by the youngster, though it wouldn’t showcase the whole story as he’d usually be on the periphery in matches and often struggle to create as much as he would’ve liked. Playing in a central midfield role allows him to do exactly that, which is another reason why a position change has helped him to improve with time.
For someone as lean and deceptively strong as Maitland-Niles, he doesn’t win enough aerial battles and that’s an area he’ll need to work on, especially if he does make the midfield position his preferred role at Arsenal.
Speaking of preferred roles, that could be seen as another weakness. Maitland-Niles is versatile and it’s well-known that Arsene Wenger does like players who can play in a multitude of different positions but he should assert himself more with regards to where he feels more beneficial to the side playing.
He turns 20 soon and is at the stage of his career where he needs to earn competitive minutes on a regular basis. Having proven his quality at u23 level, it only makes sense to deploy him in a similar role for the senior side unless an emergency is necessary.
As an example, it’s likely that both Carl Jenkinson and Mathieu Debuchy will leave the club on permanent deals at some stage this summer. Hector Bellerín is the club’s first-choice at rightback but when rested, injured or suspended, it would make sense for Maitland-Niles to feature there – having already done so on four occasions to date.
It’s clear to see that senior players rate Maitland-Niles highly and rightly so, he’s one of the best to make a first-team appearance in recent seasons.
You can only hope Wenger utilises him correctly and allows him extended opportunities to establish his credentials and earn his trust next term, just like he did with Alex Iwobi two seasons ago.