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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 - @96PearsonW.

Arsenal

Despite Celtic success, Arsenal should avoid Brendan Rodgers

Arsenal will be faced with looking for a new manager this summer.

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Getty Images

The end had been coming for a long time, but it was a surprise on Friday when Arsene Wenger announced he would be standing down as Arsenal manager.

The tributes quickly followed and a manager that had cut a sorry figure for the past few seasons was forgotten. Instead, his successes and impact on English football became the focus.

It is too soon to tell who the club’s priority target is to replace their legendary manager, but the early favourite with the bookies is Brendan Rodgers.

The Northern Irishman is arguably the best British coach in football at the moment and his experience at two big clubs, Liverpool and Celtic, puts him in contention for the Arsenal job.

The Celtic majority shareholder has already commented on the rumours and told Sky Sports that the club wouldn’t stand in Rodgers’ way if he wanted to move back to the Premier League with Arsenal:

“I’m glad he’s the favourite. He’s an outstanding person. We wouldn’t want him to leave but we won’t force him to stay. Hopefully, his love for the club and the setup here will enduce him to stay at the club.”

Although they provide a good starting point, the odds from various bookmakers aren’t reliable at this stage of the recruitment process. It would be expected that Arsenal have a number of managers in mind, but there is a long way to go before an appointment is made.

A number of the media have already talked up Rodgers as the best candidate for the role, due to his style of football and experience at two big British clubs. At Liverpool, he came close to winning the club’s first Premier League title during the 2013-14 season and got the team playing some excellent football.

(Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

The 45-year-old has continued to impress with Celtic as he guided the club to an unbeaten domestic season during his first year in charge. There are question marks over the quality of the Scottish League, but Rodgers has stood out as the best manager the club have had in a number of years.

In addition to the domestic success, he has overseen some good performances in Europe, albeit their overall achievements on the continent have been modest.

By being the best British candidate, there will be a lot of people pushing for Rodgers to get the job, but it would be a poor appointment by Arsenal.

Despite his Liverpool teams playing some exciting football, he failed to win a single trophy during his time at Anfield. He came close to lifting the Premier League title, but in hindsight, the reason for that was the genius of Luis Suarez and goal-scoring form of Daniel Sturridge rather than the influence of Rodgers.

The best managers deliver results on a regular basis and can establish their team as regular contenders. The 2013-14 season will be remembered fondly by Liverpool fans, but their failure to build on it didn’t reflect well on Rodgers. They were quickly knocked out of both the Champions League and the Europa League before limping along to a 6th place finish.

During his time at Anfield, Rodgers did okay without ever looking like he belonged at one of England’s biggest clubs. His success at Celtic has seen him repair his reputation, but it is a huge change to go from being the dominant team in Scotland to rebuilding Arsenal.

The Gunners need to bring in a proven winner to instantly win over the players and have the authority to rebuild the club from top to bottom. Rodgers isn’t that man. He needs to show he can win major honours outside of Scotland before being considered for a top Premier League job again.

This summer is too soon for him and Arsenal would be foolish to consider him as an option.

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Who is best-placed to challenge Manchester City next season?

Pep Guardiola’s side will be looking to defend their title during the 2018/19 campaign.

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Getty Images

Manchester City were crowned as Premier League champions on Sunday afternoon after Manchester United suffered a surprise defeat at the hands of struggling West Bromwich Albion.

Pep Guardiola’s team have ripped apart the top-flight of English football this season with a devastatingly effective style of play that has left their rivals struggling to hold on to their coattails.

City are currently 16 points clear of second place with five games still to play and now have the opportunity to break the 100-point barrier as the season comes to a conclusion.

Here, The Boot Room evaluate which top-six team is best placed to challenge Manchester City’s dominance next year.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Manchester United

There are currently mixed feelings around Old Trafford regarding how Manchester United have performed this season and the long-term direction of the club under the stewardship of Jose Mourinho.

A failure to maintain the astonishing pace set by Manchester City has left supporters having to be content with a top-four finish and FA Cup semi-final whilst there has been a deluge of criticism aimed at the pragmatic style of play utilised.

Mourinho remains one of the best managers in world football and he is still in the process of moulding a team in his own image.

The Portuguese maestro has already spent big in the transfer market, as demonstrated by the arrivals of Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku over the past two years, and the club are expected to make further significant investments in the summer.

He needs to find the missing piece to the Manchester United jigsaw and that will mean addressing the lop-sided defence, demonstrated by Ashley Young’s emergence as first-choice left-back.

Mourinho has overcome Guardiola in the past but there will be no room for excuses next season if, after two years of building a team, Manchester United are unable to challenge their cross-city rivals.

(Photo by Glyn Kirk/Getty Images)

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur have continuously improved year-on-year under the stewardship of Mauricio Pochettino but you still feel that the club is some way behind their rivals in terms of winning the Premier League.

Spurs have a young, dynamic squad of players that play fast, attacking football and, in Harry Kane, they possess one of the best strikers in the world right now. However, something is still missing and it is hard to put your finger on exactly what it is.

Perhaps it is simply a mental issue? Tottenham have not won a league title since 1960 and last secured silverware of any kind almost a decade ago – do the current group of players have the right mentality or experience to enable them to maintain performances over the course of a full campaign? Their upcoming FA Cup semi-final may provide an insight later this month.

Whilst you feel that Tottenham will always be in and around the top spots next season, it is difficult to see them overcoming Manchester City without significant investment or Pochettino uncovering the magic formula.

(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Chelsea

Chelsea have offered a feeble and limp defence of their title this year and still face a scramble to secure a place in the top-four.

Things have clearly not been right behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge and Antonio Conte is expected to depart the club in the summer after spending much of the season snipping at the Chelsea hierarchy.

Regardless of who the Italian’s successor is, it is widely expected that the club will bounce back.

Under the ownership of Roman Abramovich, the Blues have continuously maintained their standing as one of the leading side’s in the country and you would imagine that the Russian oligarch will be keen to reclaim their crown next season.

Chelsea will spend big in the summer to ensure that they build a squad capable of challenging Manchester City and a striker will be top of the new manager’s wish list. Alvaro Morata made a positive start to the campaign but has struggled for form and fitness in the second half of the season.

If the Blues can make the right appointment in the dugout and strengthen significantly on the pitch then history suggests they will be in and around the top spots.

(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Liverpool

Since arriving at Anfield in October 2015 Jurgen Klopp thrown himself into the task of restoring Liverpool’s status as one of the leading club’s in Europe.

Each transfer window has seen the squad steadily improve and you now feel that the German has built a team that is capable of challenging for both domestic and European silverware.

Liverpool have a reputation for producing attacking, dynamic and exciting football and the attacking trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino possess an abundance of pace, power and creativity.

Under the stewardship of Klopp, the team have always looked capable of scoring goals but have regularly been criticised for being undermined by defensive fragile and frail.

However, the signing of Virgil Van Dijk in January, the emergence of John Robertson and the new-found confidence of Loris Karius appears to have put some of those concerns to bed – Liverpool have kept eight clean sheets in their last 12 matches in all competitions.

Klopp will continue to develop the squad during the summer and, as proven by their historic victory over Manchester City, the Reds are certainly heading in the right direction.

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Arsenal

There has continued to be a degree of frustration and dissatisfaction around the Emirates Stadium this season as Arsenal have continued to fall behind their rivals on the pitch.

The Gunners are currently 33 points behind Manchester City in the Premier League are relying on winning the Europa League in order to qualify for the Champions League next year.

The club under-performed last season, failing to qualify for Europe’s premier competition, and the decline has continued over the following twelve months with supporters becoming increasingly frustrated with Arsene Wenger’s failure to consistently secure positive results.

The same old problems persist – there is a lack of leaders, a lack of quality in central defence and no commanding midfield player.

Wenger has brought together an exciting forward line that possesses pace, power and experience with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan arriving in January to complement the likes of Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and a fit-again Danny Welbeck.

However, Arsenal continue to be undermined by prevalent weaknesses throughout the remainder of the team and there are currently a world away from competing with Manchester City.

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Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere should consider success of former team-mate and leave North-London

The England international looks set to leave the Emirates outfit this summer.

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Jack Wilshere
Photo: Getty Images

If anyone this season can speak of a season defined by their rejuvenated form then Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would take the gold as the once rejected. The once-out-of-favour winger at Arsenal has now transformed himself into one of the key additions to Liverpool‘s settled central midfield three.

Jürgen Klopp has well and truly got the best out of the 24-year-old this term and this marked improvement could inspire the Ox’s former team-mate, Jack Wilshere, who may considering that a move away from North London is now necessary to reignite his career.

Wilshere was hauled off in embarrassing fashion on Thursday night during Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with CSKA Moscow, with the Russians leading 2-0, and the player’s reaction to being axed early highlights just how unsettled at his boyhood club he  has become.

Reports in the Telegraph claim that, despite enjoying a rare, relatively injury-free campaign for the Gunners this season, Wilshere chose to turn down a new deal at the Emirates after refusing to take a pay-cut. Arsenal are keen for the England international to stay but won’t increase their original offer.

With the World Cup coming up and the 26-year-old still yet to establish himself as a regular England starter it remains to be seen whether Arsene Wenger can get the best out of the man that was once hailed the ‘future of the Three Lions’, even by the likes of footballing legends such as Barcelona’s Xavi.

This season Wilshere has featured in 33 matches for the London outfit and has made a personal record number of appearances since the 2013/2014 campaign.

(Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images,)

However, since the offer of a new deal was made to Wilshere earlier this year, Mesut Ozil has signed a new contract that almost trebled his salary to £350,000-a-week.

In that time, Arsenal have also agreed to pay £200,000-a-week to Henrikh Mkhitaryan and £180,000-a-week to club-record signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Thus highlighting just how far Wilshere has fallen down the financial pecking order at the Emirates.

Currently, the Englishman is set to become a free-agent in June.

After watching former Emirates team-mate Chamberlain firing Liverpool to the Champions League quarter-finals, with his sensational strike against Premier League champions Manchester City, should Wilshere look to the Klopp effect to get his fading career back on track?

It would definitely prove a risky move for both parties, if the Merseysiders were to pursue the signing.

However, flying high in Europe with once-written-off forward and PFA Player of the year favourite Mohamed Salah, who is already on 40 goals for the season, Liverpool are beginning to represent the perfect club for players to reignite their careers.

Wilshere should take comfort in the knowledge that Reds boss Jurgen Klopp is the perfect manager to revive some of football’s fallen giants.

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