Arsene Wenger has looked to Arsenal academy product Ainsley Maitland-Niles for the past few matches to provide cover at left-back. The youngster has exceed expectations and cemented a regular place in the starting line-up with a series of impressive performances.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles has stood out for Arsenal in the UEFA Europa League this season, but when Arsene Wenger decided to bring him into the starting line-up in a Premier League match, most fans and experts thought the Frenchman had taken a gamble. It was an odd decision for Wenger to play a 20-year-old without any substantial Premier League experience outside of his natural position, especially with the left-back from the 2016/17 Bundesliga team of the season on the bench.
Well, Wenger made the right call and showed that he still has the magic touch that has traditionally helped him develop unknown players into superstars. Obviously, Maitland-Niles is not close to becoming a superstar yet, but his performances since his first start on December 13th against West Ham shows he’s well on his way to becoming the next great Arsenal youth academy product.
The youngster’s versatility stands out – he has performed for Arsenal as a right-winger, a centre-back, a right-back, a left-back, and a central midfielder. During the busy festive period of the Premier League season, Maitland-Niles has excelled at left-back, which is not one of his main positions. The adaptability he shows in each match is admirable, and he never shows discomfort when he moves into a new position.
For a right-footed left-back, the man nicknamed AMN never looks uncomfortable. Whenever he drives down the left flank, he never shows fear or apprehension whenever he may have to make a left-footed cross. Plenty of right-footed left-backs in world football need to cut back to their right foot to make a cross, which slows up the attack. Maitland-Niles’ dual-footedness is an underrated strength of his that helps Arsenal’s attack flow.
His right-footedness lets him drift toward the centre of the park and act as a de facto midfielder when he wants to, which is a tendency possessed by top-tier left backs such as David Alaba, Marcelo, Ricardo Rodriguez, and Jonas Hector. His ability to pick out a pass and hold onto the ball make him a perfect fit for that role. He has the composure of an experienced player, which has certianly aided his development from an academy prospect to the first-choice left-back of one of England’s biggest clubs.
The east London native made his competition for the full-back spots within the Arsenal squad look simply inferior after his first league start. Take a look at this piece of evidence that shows the impact he made in his first start:
Ainsley Maitland-Niles (4) has more successful crosses than Hector Bellerin (3) and Sead Kolasinac (2) in the Premier League, despite playing 15 games fewer than Bellerin and 13 fewer than Kolasinac. pic.twitter.com/w6nNpDau9l
— Chris Wheatley (@ChrisWheatley_) December 14, 2017
That statistic serves both as a reflection of the poor play from Bellerin and Kolasinac this season and the immediate impact Maitland-Niles made upon his entrance into the first XI. On average, Maitland-Niles makes 0.7 crosses per game, while Kolasinac makes just 0.1. Arsenal sits in last place in the league for crosses made per game with just 15, so that makes Maitland-Niles’ aptitude for picking out a cross even more impressive.
Additionally, AMN has a stellar pass success rate of 86.9% in the league. It’s the eighth-highest in the Arsenal squad, higher than Granit Xhaka, Hector Bellerin, Alexis Sanchez, Sead Kolasinac, Mesut Ozil, and Aaron Ramsey. His ability to take care of the football fits right into Wenger’s style of play, and such an inexperienced player who makes so few mistakes shows maturity beyond his years.
Maitland-Niles does slightly lack the ability to balance his play and track back to defend, but that is mostly because he has not yet acclimated to the pace and skill of Premier League football. Opponents dribble past him 1.3 times per game, which is the fifth-highest amount in the team, and he makes just 1.1 clearances each match. His tallies for interceptions and tackles hold up well in comparison with the Gunners’ other defensive players: his 1.6 tackles per game sit sixth-highest among Arsenal players and his 0.9 interceptions sit in 11th-highest.
Even though he is not close to his full defensive potential, AMN is certainly not a liability at the back. Since he went through his teenage years as a winger and a central midfielder, defence was never his first priority while he learned the game as a youngster. As he gains confidence and experience through this run of strong performances, his defensive prowess will improve. Between his natural skill and the fact that he rests under the wing of Arsene Wenger, the sky is the limit for Ainsley Maitland-Niles.