Could Maitland-Niles become the new poster boy for the Arsenal midfield?

Photo by Kieran Clarke, CC BY 2.0

Homegrown Gunner, Ainsley Maitland-Niles has been part of the Arsenal fabric since the age of six-years-old. A product of the Hale End Academy, it only took him 11 years to make his first-team debut, appearing in the Champions League against Turkish giants Galatasaray under former boss, Arsene Wenger. The tricky wide man was somewhat surprisingly remodelled into a defensive wing-back in the latter stages of Wenger’s reign, which many people believe has stunted his progression at the Emirates.

At the tender age of 17, Maitland-Niles signed a season-long loan deal with Championship side, Ipswich Town. A season under the stewardship of Mick McCarthy – a man who honours work rate more than most – did Maitland-Niles no harm whatsoever. He played 30 times for the Tractor Boys on the wing, catching the eye on numerous occasions when cutting in from the flank. Maitland-Niles returned to Arsenal in the summer of 2016 with the ambition of earning game time in the Arsenal midfield but was subsequently re-engineered into a wing-back.

Maitland-Niles has had little luck since the arrival of the new boss, Emery

Admittedly, this was more out of necessity than desire, but it has meant that Arsenal fans have certainly not seen the best of “one of their own”. Unai Emery’s arrival as Wenger’s replacement also coincided with Maitland-Niles sustaining a broken leg in the Spaniard’s first league game in charge in August. Following a period of months on the sidelines, Maitland-Niles returned to the fold early in the New Year and is now up to speed to compete for a place in his favoured midfield role.

Just before the turn of 2019, Maitland-Niles celebrated his return to fitness by opening the scoring at Anfield – before Liverpool responded by blowing away the Gunners 5-1. Nevertheless, the 21-year-old’s maturity in front of goal to score in front of the Kop did not go unnoticed in the upper echelons of the Arsenal hierarchy. Although he admitted in a recent interview that he is still in “the learning stage” as a professional footballer, Maitland-Niles has a burning ambition to hold down a place on the wing for his boyhood club.

A quick look at the Gunners’ recent results suggests that the backline is still incapable of shutting out even the most shot-shy of attacks. The likes of Huddersfield and Cardiff have both found the scoresheet against Arsenal of late, busting many football accumulator tips in the process. Although Emery must look to find a defensive solution, it is clear he wants to focus more heavily on his side being a menace in the final third. Finding a route into the Gunners’ midfield won’t be easy for Maitland-Niles, but the way in which Academy compatriot Alex Iwobi has cemented down a place in the side should give him heart.

Will Ainsley be keeping on eye on Ramsey’s departure?

Welsh midfield maestro, Aaron Ramsey is set to leave the Emirates Stadium in July

Photo by Kieran Clarke, CC BY 2.0

There’s also the small matter of Aaron Ramsey’s departure to Juventus this summer, which will leave a gaping hole to fill in the attacking midfield area. Whether Emery has enough faith in Maitland-Niles to try him in a similar role remains to be seen. Ainsley missed Arsenal’s recent 2-0 home win over struggling Southampton due to illness, but Emery was confident that he would be back soon to play his part in securing a Champions League berth for 2019/20.

There is no doubting Maitland-Niles’ commitment to the Arsenal cause. He recently insisted that he had “always had love” for the club and that it was “getting stronger every day”. For the Gooners faithful, having a homegrown prospect willing to put his body on the line for the shirt is a beautiful thing. As a young teen, Maitland-Niles was a striker who modelled himself on Thierry Henry. As the other young prospect grew taller, he was soon encouraged to forge a path as a flying winger. Given that there is clearly a lot of potential there to realise, it’s high time that Emery gives him his bow over the long-term ahead of overseas imports with little or no attachment to the club.