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Is this Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ lifeline?

Ainsley Maitland-Niles started in central midfield in Arsenal’s 6-0 friendly win over Charlton on Saturday. Is this a lifeline for the man who had previously been shunned by Mikel Arteta?

It has been a turbulent and tumultuous season for Ainsley Maitland-Niles. After producing a Man of the Match display on the opening day of the season, leading Arsenal to a 1-0 win over Newcastle United, it was believed that this might finally be the campaign that he steps into a full-time starting role, especially as Hector Bellerin rehabbed from his torn ACL.

Despite some strong performances under Unai Emery, he slipped out of the team in October and November before being reacclimated to the starting XI through the winter months. By this point, Emery had departed. Mikel Arteta eventually arrived in late-December and Maitland-Niles went on his best run of form of his career.

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For five league matches, he was superb. In an inverted right-back role that moved him into central areas of the pitch when the team was in possession, Maitland-Niles’ composure and skill on the ball were crucial to his play. He helped build attacks from deep, shuttled the ball around the back quickly, making it hard for opponents to effectively press, and then played with focus and attention in defensive moments, showing the speed and athleticism to cover the added ground against the counter-attack. It seemed as though he would finally challenge Hector Bellerin for the starting role.

When Bellerin returned from injury, however, he was immediately ushered into the starting XI. Maitland-Niles first dropped to the bench, then out of the squad entirely, and eventually behind Sokratis and Cedric Soares in the pecking order, not even remotely considered as a viable option. Since Bellerin returned to action, Maitland-Niles has played just two minutes across two appearances.

It seemed as though this would be the end of his Arsenal career. Maitland-Niles wanted to play in central midfield. Arteta wanted him to play right-back. The impasse left Maitland-Niles on the outside looking in. Until this Saturday, when he started in central midfield in the Gunners’ 6-0 victory over Charlton in a behind-closed-doors friendly.

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Of course, the point of this match was to gain fitness as the team prepares for the league’s restart in a little over a week. It is the perfect time to experiment. Maitland-Niles starting in midfield could, therefore, mean very little, especially given that Lucas Torreira seemingly missed out due to injury.

Nevertheless, this is still a major step in the right direction for a player who had previously not played a single minute in central midfield under Arteta. It might be a meaningless friendly, but Maitland-Niles was provided more central midfield action than he has all season long. In fact, the last time he started a match in central midfield was against Manchester United in April 2018 when Arsene Wenger was resting his stars in preparation for the Europa League.

Next: Arsenal: 3 semi-meaningless takeaways from Charlton friendly

This, then, is a major development for Maitland-Niles. And it could just be a lifeline for his Arsenal career.

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