As Arsenal look to embark on a transformative summer to aid Mikel Arteta’s quest to take the club back to the Champions League, reshuffling the pack will be essential, but now they are at risk of losing one of the most important cards in their deck.
Reports from Sky Sports suggest Ainsley Maitland-Niles is set for a move to Wolves this summer, as Nuno Espirito Santo aims to strengthen both in central midfield and full-back areas.
The 22-year-old may not be the name that pops off an Arsenal team sheet on most matchdays, but throughout the past three years, and especially under Arteta, has proven himself as the side’s very own, very necessary Swiss army knife.
Becoming a regular in the 2017/18 season at left-back, after Sead Kolasinac’s injury, the benefits to having him in the side were clear from the get go. Despite playing out of position, he was tough to beat one-on-one, able to keep the ball in tight spaces when forced onto the touchline and could even drive infield when needed.
Rewarded that summer with a new contract, a hairline crack on his calf bone stunted the start of his 2018/19 season but Hector Bellerin’s injury later that season resulted in him moving to right-back.
There, he did show naivety in regards to his positioning but grew into the role, becoming much better at anticipating danger out wide while his technical ability remained at the level displayed a season prior.
Starting the 2019/20 season reasonably well at right-back, it all went south in September. Positioning issues arose again as Arsenal’s defence became more porous with each passing week, he was sent off against Aston Villa.
Then came the interview in which simply stating he wasn’t playing in his preferred position was misconstrued into thoughts that he had rejected the full-back roles.
Questions over his attitude were sparked for the first time and he wouldn’t get back into the side until Freddie Ljungberg took interim charge in December, in the position he had supposedly rejected. Enter Mikel Arteta and not only was Maitland-Niles tasked with playing right-back, but with more heavier demands.
Following the trend set by Pep Guardiola with Philip Lahm at Bayern Munich and Kyle Walker at Manchester City, Arteta set about using the 22-year-old as an inverted right-back immediately.
In his managerial debut at Bournemouth, as Bukayo Saka ventured down the left and Granit Xhaka occupied the space behind him, Maitland-Niles tucked in off the opposite wing, laying the groundwork for following games.
The impact he could have in this role became most evident in the New Year’s Day win over Manchester United. In possession, his position created better passing angles for his centre-backs and from there he could help Arsenal break United’s press.
Making runs from in to out also left Luke Shaw spinning when having to deal with Nicolas Pepe that night too. Out of possession, he acted as a superb deputy to Lucas Torreira, sweeping up behind him when United broke forward.
A sound shutting out of Wilfried Zaha followed before a mistake in the build-up to Sheffield United’s equaliser saw him dropped. During which time, more questions surrounding his attitude were asked.
So much so that they couldn’t be ignored by Arteta any longer as by the time March swung around, his only minutes were coming in second half cameos and Under-23s appearances.
“Ainsley needs to put his head down, work hard and show me every day in training he wants it more than anybody else and that he wants to play for this club and fight for his place.” Arteta told football.london after Arsenal’s 2-0 FA Cup win over Portsmouth.
With football halted not even two weeks later, lockdown presented another chance for Maitland-Niles to prove himself amid doubts over his character, which is exactly what he did.
“[His attitude is] much better. We discussed that during the lockdown and he’s changed a lot of things, a lot of positive things,” Arteta said on June 19.
“He’s a really honest kid as well, we know him from the academy and the way he has developed here. He has all the attributes and qualities to become a really important player, it’s up to him.”
Arteta’s acknowledgement that Maitland-Niles had addressed these issues was evident in the academy graduate being granted opportunities in midfield in the friendlies leading up to the restart as well as the early games against Manchester City and Southampton.
Soon enough, his services were required out wide again as the Gunners switched to a back three and once again, he excelled both on the right and the left.
Playing on the right, he was far more comfortable than both Hector Bellerin and Cedric Soares and struck an extremely effective partnership with Nicolas Pepe, which wasn’t matched until the FA Cup final by Bellerin.
When moved out to the left, his qualities worked tremendously well to nullify Riyad Mahrez in the FA Cup semi-final.
In the final, he was used more as an offensive weapon, bursting between Reece James and his centre-backs and although he had to cut onto his right foot, he was still instrumental in the Gunners’ build-up play during the game.