The big question: where should Ainsley Maitland-Niles play next season? by Timi
Arsenal have two positions free for him and he is more than a decent option in both at the meagre age of 21, just two years out of his teens. He’s shown incredible promise in both positions and the character to play for the first team. If Unai Emery returns to a back four next season, the midfield box-to-box position is open. Hector Bellerin is injured and will probably not return to full strength until half the season is gone. We don’t have enough money (according to reports) to adequately fill either among our other pressing needs. Both are very vital to how the coach wants us to play. Which would it be?
To answer this question is to examine the priorities of the squad. This cannot be done without the context of how the coach wants the team to play. Which, most likely, is in a hybrid of the 4-2-3-1 he used at Sevilla or the more modern 4-3-3 he used at Paris Saint-Germain.
For both systems, we need wide attackers who can do a convincing job of stretching the field, beating their man, the offside trap, and combining with fullbacks-cum-wingbacks bombing forward to overlap. Currently, we have none in the first team. We managed with using Welbeck, Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and mostly Iwobi out wide. None is a pure wide attacker, with Iwobi being the closest thing to one. Reiss Nelson largely plays out wide and he is returning to the club after a fantastic loan season at Hoffenheim. He is expected to challenge Iwobi for the starting spot on the left and/or be moved to the right side. In any case, Reiss is not enough cover. We desperately need to get one wide attacker, at least.
We also conceivably need to plug in the left-back position which has an unreliable Sead Kolasinac and a rapidly ageing Nacho Montreal. Then bring in some new blood into the centre of our defense which is currently as soft as cheese. We have further shallower holes in midfield and right-back and that is where a question of priority comes in as regards to the future of Ainsley.
He emerged as a good midfielder in his teens but since then, he’s virtually spent all his time covering in either fullback position to great effect. Last season, he has emerged as a fairly reliable player despite his age. If he does continue at where he is, he could eventually have to go back to the bench once Hector Bellerin (who himself is still developing and adding new dimensions to his game) returns. Hector Bellerin is currently better, but Ainsley appears to have a higher potential defensively and can even be more dynamic in his attacking play, what with his ability to dribble and fake his way past a player who is covering him, on top of a nice through pass in him. Case in point: he has dribbled and completed more key passes this season than Bellerin while playing less. This side to Ainsley Maitland-Niles is apparent in his opening goal against Liverpool at Anfield; you barely could imagine Bellerin making such a piercing box run like that and sticking out his foot to guide the ball into the net as though the state of the world depended on it. For the Napoli assist, there is something about the way he remained in the box while Ozil filled in out wide to give him the pass which he turned at once to Lacazette. It speaks volumes of an extra dimension to his own attacking play while he’s already better than Bellerin in making a tackle, blocking a run or a cross.
The midfield is more dicey. It’s complicated by the fact that it has been a while since he played there and, though he still has the abilities that make it his natural position, he is not exactly irreplaceable. Emery could stick Guendouzi in the box-to-box role for instance or Joe Willock, who is already notable for his piercing runs forward, though not yet known for being a great defender in the middle. Or we could simply get cover in another player which would take out of our budget. Ainsley has shown real promise in the middle and could develop even further there than at right-back. Already, last season, he has shown good ability to get in the box and be a danger in it despite playing out wide and back. He could nurture this trait better in the middle where it would be part of his job and, ultimately, deliver better on his talent than in the defense.
It is more likely that Ainsley continues in defense because if he doesn’t, it surely means we would have to get a new right-back who can hold the position well until Bellerin returns (hence the links to Kimmich). Spending on an additional new player in today’s transfer market would severely restrict our ability to get other players in other positions, unless the bank is broken for an all out reinforcement of the squad.
I wouldn’t be against Ainsley continuing developing at the back were it not for the existence of Bellerin. All I want is regular time for the lad to play his football so we can reap the benefits when he fulfills his undoubted promise. Bellerin represents an obstacle to that.
Unai Emery should play Ainsley in the box-to-box role during the preseason tour — see how fantastic he does. If he looks great, he should just literally beg the management to get a bit more funds to procure a decent right-back. If Ainsley performs poorly in the position, well, that concludes the issue. He will have to fight Bellerin for the spot (and maybe we can work out a solution in the near future, depending on who is clearly better by then).
The Birdcatcher needs regular game time to reach the upper limits of his abilities and it is up to the coach and the management to give him that, whether in the middle or out on the right side of the back four.