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