As has become the norm for Arsenal in recent times, last Tuesday’s League Cup fixture gave the management an opportunity to rotate the squad and offer valuable minutes to current fringe players. In the past, under Wenger, this might have been very young players but under Arteta it has been more squad members normally on the bench for Premier League matches.
It is these players such as Holding, Mari, Chambers, Nketiah and Cedric who needed to impress last Tuesday, either their own manager or indeed watching scouts from other clubs, but there was one man who grasped his opportunity to shine above all. That player was Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Arteta may have chosen to talk about Nketiah, whose cheekily well taken goal put the tie beyond, but for the majority of Gunners, myself included, it was the 24-year-old ‘utility man’ that stole the show.
So often used as a cover fullback or wingback, the England man, has always favoured the central midfield role, and since he was ‘persuaded’ to stay on deadline day, he has been given minutes centrally. Those minutes have often come later in matches, from the bench but last Tuesday, against Leeds, he was trusted from the start in a 4231 set up alongside Mohamed Elneny, who, last season was certainly ahead of him in the manager’s pecking order. I think we can safely say that after Maitland-Niles dominant and impressive showing against a near full strength Leeds, and against England’s darling Kalvin Phillips, he will be firmly ahead of the Egyptian now.
Biting in the tackle, breaking up the play, beating the Leeds press and using the ball well. The young England star was for most fans, Arsenal’s man of the match. A timely reminder to his manager that if he is staying at the club he has served since he was a young lad, then he wants to play and active part. With Thomas Partey’s customary partner, Granit Xhaka, out until probably December, Arteta has tried the 4231 with Sambi Lokonga and a 433 with 2 number eights, both with degrees of success.
It was the 2-man pivot of Partey and Lokonga that provided a superb base for an impressive victory over Villa and again against Leicester subsequently, but I think Maitland-Niles has now put himself firmly in contention to play with either the Ghanaian or the Belgian if needed. He is capable of playing progressively, which Elneny finds so hard, but equally can play the anchor role allowing his partner to foray further forward. The performance against Leeds obviously needs to be backed up and the player needs to show a consistency of attitude and work ethic, but he has given Arteta food for thought in the best possible way.
A few more performances of this nature from Maitland-Niles might convince Arteta and Edu that even with the AFCON in the New Year, they might not need to reinforce the midfield with a new signing. Xhaka, Lokonga and Maitland-Niles could be deemed sufficient for the weeks the team is deprived of Partey.
Whatever happens however, I think the days of Maitland-Niles being a cover fullback should be over. Arsenal now have excellent cover, as Cedric and Tavares have shown recently and the young Englishman is earning the opportunity, he always felt he deserved, to fight for the right to play in the first team midfield of the club he loves.
Arteta, it is over to you.
Passionate fifty-something Arsenal supporter who has been making the journey to N5 regularly since the early 1980s – although his first game was in 1976. Always passionate when talking about The Arsenal, Dave decided to send a guest blog to Gunnersphere in the summer of 2011 and has not stopped writing about the Gunners since.
He set up his own site – 1 Nil Down 2 One Up – in February 2012, which he moved on in 2016 to concentrate on freelance writing and building Gunners Town, which he launched with Paul in 2014.
The objective of GT was to be new and fresh and to give a platform for likeminded passionate Arsenal fans wishing to write about their team. Dave still of course, writes for the site himself and advises the ever-changing writing crew.