No matter how football evolves, careers themselves will always hinge on variables. Injury to a direct rival may free up space in the starting line-up, different managers feel more inclined to select those they trust, individual moments could boost or destroy reputations and it could just be something as simple as form. But if you had suggested even last month that Ainsley Maitland-Niles could start at left-back for Arsenal against Jurgen Klopp’s free-scoring Liverpool side, you’d have been laughed at.
Whether or not he did was irrelevant, but the fact that he remained in the conversation at all, does. Sead Kolasinac has made a strong start to life North London after his summer move from FC Schalke, but looked to be struggling with a hip injury suffered on international duty with Bosnia. Naturally, a back-up option would be used in his absence, but Arsenal’s switch to a back three formation means that Nacho Monreal – the ideal cover – is needed at centre half. Bang. There’s your variable. There’s your opportunity.
So how has Maitland-Niles, a 20-year-old, right-footed central midfielder, suddenly gone from being the makeshift option in Arsenal’s Europa League XI to a starter in the Premier League? When he was first brought in against West Ham it was thought that Kolasinac was just being given a rest as Arsene Wenger shuffled his pack ahead of a busy festive period. But he was excellent at the London Stadium against the likes of Marko Arnautovic, defending well as part of a back four and attacking well when needed. In fact, some of Arsenal’s best moments in the 0-0 draw came from Maitland-Niles joining up with Alexis Sanchez on that side.
When asked about his performance after the game, Wenger spoke with a glint in his eye. “I thought he played well.” said the Frenchman. “He played a little bit with the handbrake on but defended well and gave good balls, showed calmness.” What’s also interesting to note is how much Wenger values Maitland-Niles’ versatility and recovery runs.
“Playing in different positions to your preferred position is part of your job and it can only make you better. Ainsley is very strong, very quick and he has fantastic recovery runs when he comes back. Of course, he still has some aspects to learn: experience and he has to work on his heading. But overall, what he has done is positive.”
What the motives are behind Kolasinac’s exclusion remain up in the air, but having been handed his opportunity, the 20-year-old grabbed with both hands. From the outside looking in this still looks like a short-term switch with the bruising Bosnian still acclimatising to the rigours of English football, but the next few weeks will be telling. Competition for places at the Emirates has long been an issue so the emergence of an exciting young player will only be welcomed by those associated with the club.
Much like Alex Iwobi, Arsenal fans have a soft spot for Maitland-Niles as a product of their infamous Hale End Academy, having joined the club as a six-year-old. He is also the second youngest player to represent Arsenal in the Champions League after coming on as a late substitute against Galatasaray in October 2014. While he may fly under the radar, it’s clear that the Gunners have a very malleable, capable player on their hands and it’s no surprise that he is highly thought of behind the scenes.
Although most of his (very short) senior career has involved him played on the flanks, it’s anticipated that Maitland-Niles will eventually end up in the centre. He has the stamina required to cover plenty of ground, his long-range shooting is effective and the way he buzzes around, pinching the ball away from opposition players, is almost Kante-esque. What’s also likeable about the youngster is that he never hides on the pitch. He always wants the ball and will always try things, even if they don’t come off throughout the game – traits that are encouraged and valued from an early age at Arsenal.
While this may seem like a sudden inclusion to us, Wenger is fully aware of Maitland-Niles’ potential having made the 20-year-old a permanent fixture in training alongside Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson. His hardworking and determined nature will leave him in good stead for the future, but for now, his seamless progression into the first team have given him a chance in the present.