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Does academy product Ainsley Maitland-Niles have what it takes to succeed at Arsenal?

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Photo: Reuters

When the respective team-sheets were announced for Friday night’s thrilling encounter between Arsenal and Liverpool there was certainly a feeling of apprehension about Arsene Wenger’s line-up.

The 68-year-old veteran manager had taken a gamble, rewarding 20-year-old academy product Ainsley Maitland-Niles with his third successive start after a string of head-turning performances.

To say it was a bold move is perhaps an understatement.

The Gunners were up against a side that they had shipped 11 goals against in their previous three league meetings, a run that included the shockingly poor 4-0 defeat at Anfield earlier in the season.

Combine this with the frightening prospect of being faced with Liverpool’s so-called ‘Fab Four’ and there were few Arsenal fans that would have been confident with Wenger’s faith in Maitland-Niles ahead of kick-off.

By selecting the inexperienced youngster it also meant that he had once again overlooked Sead Kolasinac, the burly left-back signed from FC Schalke over the summer who has made a name for himself being a bully and a defensive powerhouse, for the third consecutive Premier League match.

In Kolasinac there was a reliable option; deployed up against Salah he would have used his frame to his advantage, showing the Egyptian the more physical side of the Premier League whilst being capable of keeping pace in a foot race, and he would have offered a potent threat high up the pitch.

But they say that fortune favours the brave and Wenger’s bold decision to choose the budding Maitland-Niles over Kolasinac was one that, despite not winning the game, was largely justified.

On a night of abject defending, with either side’s best chance of winning coming from simply out-scoring their opponents rather than defending a lead, it seems strange to pick a defender out for praise.

But the circumstances in which Maitland-Niles was thrown in at the deep end and tasked with keeping one of the most in-form players quiet makes his contribution on the night worth noting.

He seemed assured from the opening whistle, recovering well to tackle the ever-dangerous Salah down the right-hand side inside the first ten minutes in a moment that would have settled nerves.

It was clear that he was given one pre-match message – to stop the Egyptian in his tracks – and whilst that’s easier said than done he stuck at it well and offered the Liverpool winger little success by his very high standards.

Liverpool were expectedly explosive when breaking on the counter-attack and there were times where Salah did manage to steal a march on Maitland-Niles but on the whole the 20-year-old had the pace to recover and hold him up, turning him away from Petr Cech’s goal.

Little blame can be attributed to him for either of Liverpool’s three goals either.

For the first it was Laurent Koscielny who couldn’t deal with Salah’s initial cross before it found its way onto Philippe Coutinho’s head, and whilst it was Maitland-Niles who lost possession in the moments before Liverpool’s second they still had 100 yards to go before reaching the Arsenal goal.

If anything it was good to see the 20-year-old venturing up into attack after a tepid first-half in an attacking sense from the hosts, and he can’t be to blame for his teammates lack of cover at the back.

There was one particularly critical tackle in the depths of stoppage time that stopped a marauding Emre Can in his tracks too. It was the sort of tackle that, had he even mistimed it slightly, it would undoubtedly have been penalised for a spot-kick and handed Liverpool a win in the most dramatic manner.

But Maitland-Niles timed it to perfection and it perhaps encapsulated everything good about his gritty and determined evening, and there’s now real potential for him to push on and aspire to be an Arsenal first-team regular after the New Year.

His sudden emergence as a first-team player this season may have come as a surprise to some but he’s been a product of the Hale End Academy that has been watched by Wenger for a fair few years now.

Since breaking into the Arsenal Under-21 set-up back in 2013 he’s been exposed to first-team football, making his professional debut at just 17 years of age in the Champions League group-stages against Galatasaray in December 2014 and becoming the second youngest player to represent the Gunners in Europe in doing so.

Whilst his first-team chances have been few and far between since then – with Wenger allowing Maitland-Niles to join Ipswich for the 2015-16 campaign – he’s always been in and around the main squad, gaining invaluable experience.

It is this experience of training with the first-team that has left him well-equipped to feature prominently in the Europa League this season, playing 90 minutes in five of Arsenal group fixtures as they relatively romped into the knock-out stages.

It may not be the toughest of tests to be playing the likes of BATE Borisov home and away but it was regular first-team exposure nonetheless, and it got him accustomed to the physicality of top-level football and playing regularly.

It also allowed Wenger to experiment with him in a left-back role against weak opposition, a complete contrast to the 20-year-old’s more natural position as a central midfielder.

This is where questions over Maitland-Niles’ future identity at the Emirates comes into question though as, despite playing well on Friday, it was very much a square peg in a round hole scenario.

There’s talent inside the bones of the 20-year-old but he’s a midfielder, not a left-back, and if Wenger persists with trying to play him away from his natural position it could tarnish his career.

And that’s the last thing Arsenal fans will want to happen.

Either way he has the budding attributes needed to be a Premier League quality footballer, having an athletic build and an element of both strength and speed that he can develop as he grows older.

He possesses an elegance and directness when driving on the ball that renders him a midfield option, and his composure and ability to pick out a pass for a player so young is certainly worth noting.

Whether Wenger’s long-term plan for Maitland-Niles is as a left-sided defender is ultimately yet to be seen but, for an all-too rare moment in recent years, there’s a player to watch out for at Arsenal.

It is always easy for any club to get carried away when a young, homegrown player puts in an assured display against a fellow top side but, considering that Arsenal’s squad is currently littered with those beyond their peak and those that simply aren’t good enough to wear the shirt, Maitland-Niles is the type of player that a future team could potentially be built around.

There is a long road ahead and a lot of maturity and experience is needed but the early signs of promise are there, and Wenger would be wise to carefully nurture a bright light from the academy.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @willypearson.

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  1. David Nelson

    December 28, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    Yes!He has what it takes to be the best out of arsenal products! He got confidence with the ball! Releasing the ball on time. He just need more game time and improve body language! Otherwise if he can improve his body language he can move to the centre midfield where I can see he is more perfect!

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Arsenal

Arsenal 4-1 Crystal Palace: Three talking points from the Emirates

Rob Meech

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Arsenal
Photo: Reuters

A barnstorming first-half performance against Crystal Palace saw Arsenal record their first victory of 2018. Nacho Monreal, Alex Iwobi, Laurent Koscielny and Alexandre Lacazette all scored in the opening 22 minutes to stun Crystal Palace. Arsenal could not add to their tally as the visitors stemmed the bleeding and replied with a late consolation through Luka Milivojevic.

This was a much-needed victory for Arsenal, whose ambitions of qualifying for the Champions League have taken a blow in recent weeks. Palace meanwhile, have been in impressive form since Roy Hodgson took charge, but this defeat has checked their progress. Here are three talking points from the Emirates…

Mesut Ozil steps up in Alexis Sanchez’s absence

With Alexis Sanchez’s move to Manchester United rumoured to be nearing completion, this was a chance for Arsenal supporters to see how the team might shape up without him. Sanchez was excluded from the side that lost to Bournemouth last weekend, but his absence was hardly felt here.

That might have had something to do with the return of Mesut Ozil from injury. The Germany international was influential throughout, particularly in partnership with the rejuvenated Jack Wilshere. Ozil is sometimes accused of drifting in and out of games against top-quality opposition, but when he is given licence to express himself without defensive responsibility, there are few better players to watch in the Premier League.

Although he failed to get on the scoresheet, Ozil showed Gunners fans that there can be life after Sanchez. It should not be forgotten that Ozil is another Arsenal player in the final six months of his contract. Tying him down to a new deal must be a priority for the club.

A reality check for lacklustre Palace

After losing their first seven Premier League matches – without scoring a goal in the process – relegation seemed nailed on for Palace. The appointment of Hodgson was largely derided, but the former England boss has had a remarkable impact in a relatively short space of time at Selhurst Park.

Survival is by no means guaranteed, but such has been their upturn in form that it is hard to imagine the Eagles being sucked back into trouble. It says a lot about their progress that many thought an upset might have been on the cards. Palace, however, were left shell-shocked after Arsenal’s four-goal burst.

When the Gunners click, they can be irresistible. Palace fans need not be too alarmed, even if their defending was lax. In fact, they should be heartened that their players did not capitulate in the second period, with the game effectively over. Although Milivojevic’s goal was too, little too late, it was just reward for a much-improved second-half performance.

Lacazette issues a timely reminder 

With a 3-0 advantage after just 13 minutes, Arsenal were in cruise control. But it was Lacazette’s goal, rounding off a superb team move to make it 4-0, that would have provided the biggest cheer. After hitting the ground running following his big-money transfer from Lyon last summer, the 26-year-old had endured a goal drought that stretched all the way back to December 2.

With questions being asked about his form, amid speculation that Arsenal are set to launch a raid for Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, this was a timely reminder that Lacazette has plenty to offer. His overall record of nine Premier League goals from 24 appearances is more than respectable for a newcomer to the English game.

Lacazette will hope that his goal against Palace can be the catalyst for another scoring run. Without Sanchez, the burden rests more heavily on the France international and if a move for Aubameyang does not materialise, he will have a big part to play in Arsenal’s push for the top four.

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Why Everton are the perfect club for Theo Walcott to rebuild his career

Rob Meech

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Theo Walcott

It is hard to believe Theo Walcott is only 28 years old. He burst on to the scene aged 16 for Southampton in League One and was snapped up by Arsenal shortly afterwards. His inexplicable selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad, without playing in a single Premier League game, transformed him into an overnight star.

Big things have been expected of Walcott ever since. It’s fair to say that, despite winning 47 caps for England and making 397 appearances for Arsenal, he has failed to live up to the hype. Now, after 12 years, Walcott is bidding farewell to the Emirates and hoping to revive his flagging career under Sam Allardyce at Everton, whom he has joined for £20 million after agreeing terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Speculation that Walcott’s days at Arsenal were numbered had persisted for several years, but his desire to prove himself at the club kept him in north London even when admirers came calling. His 21 goals in all competitions in the 2012/13 campaign suggested he had cracked it, but that proved to be a false dawn.

In truth, Walcott’s decision to sign for Everton was probably a no-brainer. Now in the prime of his career, he simply has to be playing regularly. The reality of how far down the pecking order he had fallen at Arsenal struck this season, when he often failed to make Arsene Wenger’s match-day squad. His last appearance for the Gunners came as a second-half substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth.

Everton’s interest in Walcott emerged only recently, but he was clearly one of Allardyce’s top targets. One look at the Toffees’ recent form underlines why. After an immediate upturn in fortunes after the former England boss’s appointment, Everton have embarked on a winless streak that stretches back to December 18.

Lack of pace is a pressing concern and this is an attribute that Walcott possesses in abundance. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intelligent footballers, but not the type that will blitz opposition defenders. Instead, they have relied on chipping balls over the top for the striker to chase. As such, Everton are one-dimensional and easy to play against, with no player capable of launching a counter-attack.

Also highlighting their urgent need for more firepower is the grim statistic that only rock-bottom Swansea have had fewer shots than Everton this season. New big-money signing Cenk Tosun has increased competition in the striking department but may take time to settle, whereas Walcott’s Premier League pedigree means no transitional period will be needed.

The former Southampton man’s versatility makes him an attractive proposition. For Arsenal, he predominantly featured on the right wing – either in a four-man midfield or a three-man attack – but he is equally adept at playing up top on his own, a position where he tried but ultimately failed to establish himself at the Emirates.

Potential is a word that has long been associated with Walcott. It is no longer applicable. At 28, this is possibly his final chance to realise his ambitions, both domestically and internationally. Everton, a sleeping giant, are a perfect fit. Under the auspices of major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, plans are in the pipeline for a brand-spanking new stadium to enable them to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite.

After being a peripheral figure at Arsenal for so long, Walcott has become the forgotten man of English football. For the sake of his career, he simply had to leave north London. By joining Everton, Walcott, who will wear the number 11 shirt, has the security of working under a manager who rates him highly. Now, he has the opportunity to become the player he always promised to be.

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Bournemouth 2-1 Arsenal: Three talking points from the Vitality Stadium

Rob Meech

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Bournemouth
Photo: Reuters

Bournemouth came from behind to claim a much-needed victory over Arsenal, whose hopes of qualifying for the Champions League have suffered another blow.

After an insipid opening period at the Vitality Stadium, the action sparked into life when Hector Bellerin broke the deadlock on 52 minutes.

But Arsenal’s lead was short-lived, as goals from Callum Wilson and Jordon Ibe – his first for the club – secured the Cherries’ fourth home win of the season, which lifted them to 13th in the table.

Arsenal, meanwhile, slipped further adrift in the battle to finish in the top four after their third consecutive league game without a win. Here are three talking points…

Alexis Sanchez moves closer to the Emirates exit door

All the pre-match talk centred on a player who wasn’t involved in the contest. Not only was Alexis Sanchez not named in the starting XI, he wasn’t even on the bench having not travelled to the south coast.

Manager Arsene Wenger was ambiguous when pressed on this in the aftermath of the defeat, but the insinuation was clear; the want-away Chilean will not be an Arsenal player come the end of the transfer window.

Both Manchester City and Manchester United have been heavily linked with a move for Sanchez, whose contract at the Emirates expires in the summer. Despite his uncertain future, this match was crying out for his never-say-die attitude.

Arsenal controlled the first half and deserved to be in front when Bellerin fired home. However, the Gunners were unable to add a second and Bournemouth capitalised with two late efforts. Arsene Wenger’s side are now without a win in four games in 2018 as their troubles mount.

Bournemouth buck the trend against the ‘Big Six’

Before this fixture, Bournemouth had lost all of their matches against the ‘Big Six’ this season, scoring only one goal in seven outings.

While those are not necessarily the games that will define their campaign, it was a worrying statistic that Eddie Howe needed to address. Facing an Arsenal team without Sanchez or Mesut Ozil looked like being the Cherries’ best opportunity to buck that trend, and so it proved.

With only nine points separating all the teams in the bottom half, an unexpected win can do so much to alter the picture. The Cherries didn’t fold after going a goal behind and they merited the three points for an enterprising second-half display.

Having beaten Arsenal for the first time in their history, Bournemouth are now four points clear of the drop-zone. They are by no means safe because of this result, but the psychological impact could be immense.

Jack Wilshere getting back to his best

Returning to the club at which he spent last season on loan, this was not the afternoon Jack Wilshere would have hoped for. Though it didn’t go well from a team perspective, the 26-year-old was close to his best at the Vitality Stadium.

He touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch and also completed more passes. After a frustrating start to the campaign where he struggled for minutes in the Premier League, Wilshere is now establishing himself in the starting XI.

He was Arsenal’s best player against Bournemouth and in a team that lacks leaders, he was one of the few who looked like he wanted the ball. Wilshere ran the show in midfield and was always keen to move forward with purpose.

England manager Gareth Southgate surely can’t ignore Wilshere’s form and, fitness permitting, he must be a shoo-in for the next squad. In a World Cup year, Wilshere is peaking at just the right time.

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