In Arsenal’s win over Östersunds FK, Ainsley Maitland-Niles played as a central midfielder. Arsene Wenger says it’s the 20-year-old’s natural position, so why do we see him there so rarely?
Despite appearing for the first team 20 times this season, Maitland-Niles has still played more matches in midfield for the u23s (two) than the senior side (one).
After 19 games on the left, he finally got his chance in the middle in Sweden on Thursday. Wenger gave his thoughts on the change in his press-conference after the game.
“It’s his natural position,” Wenger admitted. “I think 80 per cent of his game was good. I feel he can win the ball back well.
“Defensively he is quite strong, he has good acceleration and can win ball back, it was a positive game for his first one.”
The match wasn’t quite Maitland-Niles’ “first one” in midfield, as Wenger says, but it’s certainly been a while.
The last time the Hale End Academy graduate started a match in the centre for the senior side was over a year ago. He played 90 minutes of Arsenal’s 5-0 win over Southampton in January 2017. Fans and the media were impressed with the “top, strong showing” that game.
Again, on Thursday, Maitland-Niles was up to the task. A bit out of practice, he was caught on the ball once or twice. He made up for it though, as he won the ball back 18 times.
In stark contrast to some of Arsenal’s other first team midfielders, his acceleration allowed him to race back and catch Östersund’s attackers before a counter got too dangerous. Plus he distributed the ball effectively, with 94% of his passes reaching their targets.
If he offers a lot in the middle, why doesn’t he play there more?
Mostly it seems like Maitland-Niles has been a victim of the circumstances at Arsenal this season. Jack Wilshere’s return from injury meant he started most of the Europa League matches in midfield, with Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin.
Now, Wilshere and Elneny are regularly in the Premier League team, and Coquelin is in Valencia.
At the same time, Arsenal’s left-back options ran thin. Nacho Monreal played the first half of the season as a centre-back, and Sead Kolašinac struggled with form and fitness. Someone had to play on the left, and since Maitland-Niles couldn’t play in the middle anyway, he was the obvious choice.
Hopefully the England u21 international gets another chance next week. The game should be a bit of a dead rubber anyway, and if the youngster has to wait another year for a midfield chance, he’ll struggle to make it in the position. We’ll see where Wenger utilises him for the rest of the season.