Although there are more obvious holes in the Arsenal XI, midfield may be the most important position in which the club are under-staffed. Against Burnley, the centre of the pitch was a vacated wasteland, with no-one willing to offer a pass for the centre-backs. The problems run deeper than this, however. In fact, for a formation that involves anything more than an immobile double pivot, the Gunners are woefully unsuited. In short, they lack a box-to-box midfielder, an issue Edu and Raul Sanhelhi will undoubtedly try to address in future transfer windows. In Ainsley Maitland-Niles, however, Arsenal may at least have a short term solution to this conundrum.
Despite being a self-proclaimed central-midfielder, Maitland-Niles has had very few opportunities to showcase his ability there. He has admirably filled in at right-back during Hector Bellerin’s long absence, and whilst being competent, did not seriously threaten Bellerin’s spot when the Spaniard regained fitness. With the deadline-day signing of Cedric Soares from Southampton – a natural right-back who can cover left-back as well, Maitland-Niles has surely been pushed further down the pecking order. But perhaps not in midfield.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
As already mentioned, in his favoured position Maitland-Niles has been offered limited opportunities to impress. The one standout performance remains at Old Trafford, where he excelled despite the 2-1 defeat. That, however, was in April 2018 – almost two years ago. He has, however, been playing as an inverted right-back which catered to his natural midfield strengths in Arteta’s system. His abilities have allowed Arteta to safely field a more attacking left-back, be it Sead Kolasinac or Bukayo Saka, which in turn allowed Aubameyang to drift inside. Clearly, Arteta trusts Maitland-Niles’ midfield abilities.
Looking at Arsenal’s midfield options, Maitland-Niles can offer something which is currently lacking – energy. Granit Xhaka is a competent player but immobile, whilst Lucas Torreira is far better in a deep position. Options for a willing runner from midfield fall therefore to Dani Ceballos, Matteo Guendouzi, or Joe Willock. Ceballos is more creative than industrious and would be more likely to replace Xhaka. Matteo Guendouzi is undoubtedly a fantastic prospect, but at the moment it is difficult to see where his best position is. He is not mobile enough to play as a box-to-box midfielder, nor is he defensively aware enough to play as a no.6. As for Willock, Arteta has recently said that he prefers to see the young Englishman in a no.10 position.
It is widely recognised that Arsenal’s famed ‘Hale End‘ is turning out some potentially world-class players at the moment. The poor end product from Mesut Ozil so far this season, combined with the fact that he is not getting any younger, may see Arteta resort to a 4-3-3 with a no.6 and two “floating” no.8s. This could especially be the case in away games, where the Gunners will see less of the ball. Maitland-Niles could suit this role perfectly: he is athletic, and playing at full-back can only have helped improve his defensive awareness. His defensive contributions from full-back have been strong, and it is only positionally that he finds himself caught out, perhaps somewhat understandable given his natural position lying elsewhere.
Competent defensively, Maitland-Niles can also operate higher up the pitch. Arteta himself revealed that Ainsley ‘can play as an attacking midfielder because he’s a threat every time with his runs’. Against Burnley, the effect of Joe Willock’s energy was immediately obvious and played a huge part in swinging the late momentum back into Arsenal’s favour. It is not inconceivable that Maitland-Niles can offer similar energy in the centre of the pitch, and he certainly has the natural pace and stamina to succeed in that position.
Energy is the one thing that Arsenal performances tend to lack this season, with games often turning pedestrian in the middle stages. This has begun to change under Arteta, but the truth is that he has fundamentally ill-suited players to his high-press style at present.
It is entirely possible then, that the best way forward for Arsenal would be to play two floating no.8s either side of Lucas Torreira, in the forms of Joe Willock and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. With the season all but over, it would give the side a chance to acclimatise to what it seems likely that Arteta’s go-to system will be. Equally, it would give Maitland-Niles a run of games in order to prove that he can reproduce performances such as the one against Manchester United on a regular basis. If he can, he could be a very good central midfielder and could fundamentally alter Arsenal’s transfer plans.