In Arsene Wenger’s last season at Arsenal, to the joy of many fans, we saw Ainsley Maitland-Niles force himself into the first team. 2017/18 saw him make 28 appearances, however, most of those came at left back where he impressed despite not being in his preferred position of central midfield.
If anything his experience as a central midfielder which would’ve helped improve his awareness and composure helped him nail down his spot at left back. This could be seen as last season he was successful in 73.3% of his dribbles and make an average of 5.86 interceptions a game (stats provided by Wyscout).
This Season and Unai Emery
One of the main reasons that Unai Emery was given the reins to Arsenal seemed to be his similar view to developing the youth already at the club. So far, the player we’ve seen him put the most faith in is Matiland-Niles whose been rewarded with a new contract and the more senior shirt number of 15.
In Emery’s first half of Arsenal football we saw even more encouraging signs for AMN as he was stationed in midfield against Boreham Wood on Saturday.
This midfield three in what seemed to be a 4-3-3 also included young prospects, Joe Willock and Emile Smith Rowe, who also had a very good performance overall. In this midfield three, Willock seemed to sit deeper as AMN and Smith Rowe roamed in attack and defence, here’s where AMN encouraged.
For any midfielder at Arsenal, good vision and execution is a must, and that’s something that AMN without a doubt possesses. This can even be seen in the arrival of the more defensive Lucas Torreira.
In a three-man midfield, this type of vision and quick thinking can be vital. Being one of the more advanced players, AMN can turn defence into attack in an instant and if we are to see Aubameyang deployed on the left more often, this could be very dangerous for opposition teams.
Off The Ball Movement
When he was used in midfield last season, AMN was mostly found in a holding role. However, he has admitted that he sees himself as more of a box to box player, something that he showed he can be very capable of with his performance on Saturday. Especially as it is a position that requires as much work off the ball as on it.
This shows how AMN’s concentration and intelligence off the ball can help move himself and Arsenal up the pitch and into dangerous positions. If he’s to continue playing in this type of role during pre-season he should become very comfortable in picking out spaces to exploit and find a good groove for when the season begins.
Composure & Decision Making
If there was one criticism of AMN last season, it would’ve been that despite getting into good positions his end product wasn’t always the best. This could be seen as he failed to register an assist unlike our other fullback options Sead Kolasinac (four) and Hector Bellerin (five).
However, playing in midfield, this could help improve his end product as his decision making will, without doubt, improve playing in a more pressurised area of the pitch. The highlight of AMN’s day, however, did come in the form of an assist and a very well taken one at that.
If he is to play in his desired box to box role, this all round great play is something that he will have to produce regularly. We saw it last season as he proved time and again that he is more than comfortable playing in tight situations, but it’ll be interesting to see how his decision making once he breaks free develops.
Many Arsenal fans have known that AMN’s trade has been plied in central midfield, however, this season is his chance to show the wider audience of the Premier League.
It’s clear that he’s a player that Emery is fond of so, like last year, I believe that if he performs consistently well he can get a run in the team’s midfield where, if he continues to perform like on Saturday, he could have a very impressive season.
(By the way, I know it was just against Boreham Wood in the first game of pre-season but nonetheless, these are encouraging signs).