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Hector Bellerin should look over his shoulder

Ainsley Maitland-Niles produced an excellent performance in Arsenal’s win over Sheffield United. Hector Bellerin should look over his shoulder.

Hector Bellerin has not performed close to his best for some time. After starting the 2018/19 season brilliantly, enjoying the high-energy approach that Unai Emery encouraged, a disastrous ACL tear in the winter curtailed the Arsenal defender’s development once again. He took more than a year to fully recover from the injury, but even now, after three months of rest, his form has not fully rebounded.

Earlier in the year, it was reported that Bellerin was playing through a groin injury. He should have shaken that issue off by now, but his performances have still not improved as expected. Bellerin struggled against Southampton, especially in possession, was caught out by Neal Maupay for the late Brighton goal, and has not offered much in an offensive sense either.

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Mikel Arteta has been hugely faithful to Bellerin. Whenever he has been fit, the Spaniard has been ever-present in the starting XI. That is mostly due to a lack of competition at the right-back position. Cedric Soares has been injured from the moment he arrived on a six-month loan in January. Even after signing a four-year deal this week, he is not at the club to be a regular starter. And so, if there is to be any competition for Bellerin’s starting spot, it will come from Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

Based on his performance against Sheffield United, Bellerin should not sit too comfortably. Arteta shifted to a back three, featuring Maitland-Niles in the right wing-back role that he has performed well in before. The Englishman, who views himself as a midfielder, either in a central role or as a winger, was excellent once again.

He completed his two dribble attempts, won his only aerial duel, made four tackles, one interception, and won six of his seven ground duel attempts, too. In possession, he was calm and composed, using the ball smartly to help Arsenal play out from the back. And when he pushed forward, he provided the width to allow Nicolas Pepe to drift into central areas. Not coincidentally, Pepe enjoyed one of his more influential performances.

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Whether Arteta plays with a back four or back five, he expects his full-backs to partake in the team’s build-up play. In a back four, this sees the right-back tucking inside and moving into a central midfield position. Maitland-Niles flourished in this role before Bellerin returned to the team and certainly suits it more than his counterpart.

Til now, he has refused to play there. A little arrogantly, Maitland-Niles believes he is above the right-back position. But given his natural skill set and the quality of his performances so far in his career, it is quite clear that he is best-suited to the position.

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As such, if Maitland-Niles is willing to change his mind and commit himself to the role, he could push Bellerin hard for the starting job. It is still Bellerin’s to lose, but Maitland-Niles has outperformed him. He might want to look over his shoulder.

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