After a very exciting season for the Arsenal academy, we’re revealing the identity of our Young Player of the Season for 2017/18.
This year, despite fierce competition from the likes of Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock, we’ve decided Ainsley Maitland-Niles deserves the title, after a real breakthrough season for the 20-year-old.
It’s easy to forget, but Maitland-Niles was still playing with the u23s at the start of the season. He made four appearances for the youth side before mid-September, when he got his first senior call up of the campaign.
Since then, the youngster has become a fully fledged member of the first-team squad. He made 28 appearances this season, 20 of them starts. That’s a massive step up from the four cup starts he got in 2016/17.
Up until the last-16 second leg, he was a staple of the Europa League side. He played in every game prior to Milan’s trip to the Emirates in mid-March.
To get those opportunities, Maitland-Niles had to adapt to whatever the team needed from him. He played left-wing-back, left-back, right-back, central-midfield, even centre-back in pre-season. What’s more, he put in at least one or two good performances in all of those positions.
His best performances came in the middle of the park though. Particularly at Old Trafford against Manchester United, when fans expected Arsenal’s young midfield to get walked all over by the likes of Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba. Instead, Maitland-Niles ended up being named Man of the Match, and Pogba came over to congratulate him afterwards.
Man of the Match @Arsenal’s Ainsley Maitland-Niles
Completed 36/39 passes, 1 chance created
2 tackles, 2 clearances
5 x possession gained
10.93km covered (2nd most for Arsenal) pic.twitter.com/4lbOSiVlHX
— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) April 29, 2018
That shows just how far he came this campaign. It’s hard to point to anyone at the club who has made as much progress as him in 2017/18.
Undoubtedly when a young player like Maitland-Niles makes the step up to the first team, you have to give some credit to the manager for giving them opportunities.
That’s especially true when it comes to the relationship between the midfielder and Arsene Wenger, as he explained in March.
“I owe him (Wenger) a lot for believing in me and telling me I need to work on stuff before he has put me out there,” Maitland-Niles told Sky Sports. “I come in every day and try and work as hard as I can on the things I know I need to work hard on, and the things that other people pull me up about to be the best that I can.
“Me personally, he’s a very trusting person. He has a lot of belief in his players and whenever you want to talk to him about something his door’s always open – you can always walk in.
“Especially on the training pitch, he does put his arm around you when he thinks, ‘Look, I need to get into this player and tell him in a nice way how he needs to improve on this and that’, and it gives you a lot of confidence that the boss believes in you.”
You could see Wenger’s faith in Maitland-Niles when he dropped the experienced Sead Kolasinac for him against West Ham United and Liverpool. The 20-year-old had never even played left-back before those matches, and had Mohamed Salah to compete against.
The England u21 international came through those matches well, and will have learned a massive amount from them.
Hopefully the new manager can continue to have the same positive influence on Ainsley next season, and help him reach the next level. For now, he can be proud of how far he’s come this year, and excited for what the future holds.