Arsenal started the 2019/20 Premier League campaign with a hard-fought 1-0 win away at Newcastle United on Sunday. Striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored the decisive goal, but the talk amongst fans was the performances of some of the younger players.
Joe Willock was a constant threat playing in the ‘number 10’ role, while Reiss Nelson used his pace to give the Newcastle defence problems out on the left-wing. 20-year-old midfielder Matteo Guendouzi continues to play with the maturity of someone at the peak of his career, but there was one player that stood out greater than those three.
That honour belongs to right-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles. With each game that passes the 21-year-old is becoming a popular figure at Arsenal. His pace and deceiving strength caused problems for Newcastle, and in particular their wing-backs.
With Hector Bellerin still out with a serious injury, the 21-year-old seems to finally be living up to his potential. Now that he appears to have finally found his best position, will Maitland-Niles remain in the starting line-up when the Spaniard returns?
AMN’s versatility could be what keeps him as a regular anyway
Maitland-Niles has been a regular in the Arsenal line-up for the previous two seasons. The one problem has always been where his best position is. He’s been placed in centre midfield, right midfield and even at left-back. Even after suffering a serious injury himself at the start of last season, it appears that the England U21 international has finally found his calling at Arsenal.
Following Bellerin’s season-ending injury against Chelsea in January, Maitland-Niles was given his first regular spell at right-back. He excelled in several games in the latter stages of the Premier League campaign, and even got himself a goal in the 5-1 defeat away to Liverpool.
Despite Maitland-Niles being prioritised as a full-back on either side, he can also provide cover in midfield if needed. The current depth in the midfield means that would only be necessary if there were injuries to Xhaka, Torreira, Ceballos and Guendouzi at least.
The depth at left-back is also looking promising with Monreal, Kolasinac or Tierney ahead of Maitland-Niles. While his versatility is crucial in the Premier League and Europa League this season, it’s at right-back where it continues to play to Arsenal’s strengths.
He’s got the qualities for a full back, but is he missing something?
Maitland-Niles has publicly said that playing on the wing is his ‘preferred position’ but offensively he just doesn’t offer the same threat as Pepe or Aubameyang. Defensively he continues to stand out, hence why he’s a mainstay at right-back. His pace when tracking back is one of his biggest strengths, a contrast to Bellerin who only tends to use his blistering speed when going forward.
There are noticeable concerns with Maitland-Niles at right-back, with the main problem being the lack of assists. This is all due to his poor placement of crosses in the final third. The days of Bacary Sagna creating numerous chances with whipped crosses hasn’t been matched in quite some time, and having that ability to provide those crosses is still vital for any full-back.
Maitland-Niles lacks that instinct to provide a killer cross, which is a surprise considering he wants to be more of an attacking threat. Last season he only provided one assist, with a cross accuracy of just 6%. Bellerin managed to provide five assists with a cross accuracy of 23% in just half a season. From those stats, it’s clear that area is where Maitland-Niles must improve.
Is Bellerin in danger of becoming injury prone?
There’s one worry among Arsenal fans when a player returns from a lengthy injury: Could this be the first of many? For Bellerin, most Arsenal fans will certainly hope that this isn’t the case. Maitland-Niles returned from a broken leg in four months and has been relatively injury-free since. It is a worry, but not a certainty that Bellerin’s return will have a negative effect.
Bellerin is of course still considered a first-team regular, but the cover at right-back is looking thin. Stephan Lichsteiner and Carl Jenkinson have moved on, so it’s between Bellerin and Maitland-Niles for the coveted starting role. Calum Chambers could be the third choice, but he’ll want to keep his place as starting centre back alongside Sokratis.
It’ll be interesting to see if Bellerin’s pace will be affected and if that’ll impact Unai Emery’s selection. Arsenal fans will hope that he can continue his reputation as the clubs fastest player. It’s no secret that Bellerin has been missed, but Maitland-Niles continues to impress in his absence.
Who do you think should be Arsenal’s first choice at right-back? Be sure to leave a comment below or tweet us @YouAreMyArsenal.