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Ainsley Maitland-Niles might save Gunners career yet

Ainsley Maitland-Niles started in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Manchester City and performed brilliantly. Amid reports that he would look to leave in the summer, he might save his Gunners just yet.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ time at Arsenal was coming to an end. The young midfielder, so brilliant in Mikel Arteta’s opening few games, has been utterly absent from the squad for a large portion of the Spaniard’s tenure. Essentially, as soon as Hector Bellerin was available, Maitland-Niles was not.

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Quite why this was was never publicly disclosed. Maitland-Niles did turn up to training late, which he later admitted and said he learned from. Meanwhile, he always protested that he is not a full-back. Perhaps he refused to play right-back once Bellerin returned from injury and Arteta, with his stringent non-negotiables that discuss commitment and attitude, deemed this unacceptable behaviour and subsequently banished him from the team.

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Whatever the case may be, it seemed as though Maitland-Niles was on the edge of an exit from the Emirates, as David Ornstein of The Athletic reported last week. Ornstein said that Maitland-Niles does not feel trusted by Arteta and views a move to another team as the best course of action for his career. The writing, then, was on the wall.

But then, in a crucial FA Cup semi-final against the form team in world football, Arteta sprung a surprise. He trusted Maitland-Niles, inserting him at left wing-back, specifically to deal with the one-on-one threat that Riyad Mahrez poses on the City flank.

Maitland-Niles performed dutifully in the role. He was rusty in the final third, admittedly, but defensively, he was excellent. Beaten just once by the Algerian, he stuck to his task brilliantly. He mirrored Mahrez’s silky movements, pressured the ball at the right times, times his challenges, and was rarely dragged out of position.


In an interview after the match, Arteta praised the 22-year-old:

“Absolutely, [he was magnificent]. And I was sure about that with the way he’s training, the way he’s changed his mentality and his mindset. He has everything, he has great qualities, I believe in him. I had to give him opportunities and today he took it with both arms. He had a really good performance.”

The performance helped illustrate what Maitland-Niles’ believers have argued for several seasons. While his lapses in concentration and somewhat limited quality in attacking areas can be problematic at times, he has a superb and thoroughly unique skill set that deserves to be invested in and explored.

Few players are blessed with his natural athleticism. It is what makes him such a formidable one-on-one defender. He is also very calm and composed in possession. He is a neat and tidy passer, if never an especially progressive or creative one. His positioning is improving and, under Arteta, he has looked especially focused and committed, which was a major problem for him in the past.

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Maitland-Niles’ future still remains to be determined. He still needs more gametime and he likely still feels hat Arteta does not entirely trust him. But just days ago, his north London career seemed over. And now, it might just have begun.

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