Ainsley Maitland-Niles featured in central midfield in two behind-closed-doors friendlies this week. He has the skill set to provide what the Arsenal midfield requires.
After Hector Bellerin returned to the first team and Ainsley Maitland-Niles slipped out of the squad entirely, seemingly banished for his unwillingness to adapt to the right-back position, Mikel Arteta made it quite clear what the Arsenal man needed to do to earn his redemption. In an early-March press conference, Arteta said:
“Ainsley needs to put his head down and work hard and show me every day in training that he wants it more than anyone else, he wants to play for this club and fight for his place.”
It seems as though Maitland-Niles, eventually, has listened and responded.
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Arsenal played two behind-closed-doors friendlies in the past week. First, they beat Charlton Athletic 6-0, before losing 3-2 to Brentford on Wednesday afternoon. For periods in both matches, Maitland-Niles played in central midfield, the position that he has always protested is his best.
The Gunners’ central midfield has been problematic under Arteta. While clever coaching and tactical changes have helped provide a greater structure and definition to the position than was the case under Unai Emery, the team still fell short as a result of limited options at the position.
Whether it be Granit Xhaka and his immobility and lack of sense of danger or Lucas Torreira and his limited passing range or Matteo Guendouzi and his positional ill-discipline, every potential option that Arteta could turn to at the position has at least one or two serious serious defects. Maitland-Niles, though, has the rounded skill set to overcome this challenge.
This is not to say that he is the perfect midfielder without any weaknesses. He quite obviously isn’t. But it does point to his natural ability and how complete a toolset he has at his disposal. There is very little that he is not capable of, even if he does not always execute at the level and consistency required.
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Maitland-Niles is extremely athletic. He has great energy, is deceptively strong, and is tremendously fast, especially in tight spaces, which is integral for central midfield play. Equally, he is technically superb. He controls the ball well, he is calm and composed in possession, even under pressure, and he passes accurately. He is also positionally sound, when he is concentrating. When focused, he is a natural defender and he reads danger well. It also helps that he can recover when he steps out of position, but he is a strong tackler and frequent interceptor.
Where he fails, then, is in the application. Quite why this is, we do not know. It could be a poor attitude and a lack of personal motivation and commitment. It could be that he struggles under pressure and lacks the strong mentality to perform on the big stage. Or maybe it is something else, a complacent and misplaced confidence in his own ability perhaps. Whatever it is, though, it does not take away from his natural talent.
As Arteta searches for the all-encompassing midfielder who can shield the back four, break up play, provide progressive passes, cover ground, and carry the ball forward, Maitland-Niles might be the only player in the squad who is actually capable. He can provide what the midfield needs. But that, as we all know, means nothing if he cannot now deliver on the pitch.