On Thursday, both on and off the pitch, Ainsley Maitland-Niles emphasised the midfield role he can play for Arsenal if given the chance.

Arsenal vs Rapid, 3rd December, 2020. Ainsley Maitland Niles and Emilie Smith Rowe of Arsenal. Photo by Philipp Brem
Arsenal vs Rapid, 3rd December 2020. Ainsley Maitland Niles and Emilie Smith Rowe of Arsenal. Photo by Philipp Brem

One of the biggest surprises in Mikel Arteta’s team selection for Thursday night’s match against Rapid Vienna was in midfield, with Mohamed Elneny joined by Ainsley Maitland-Niles. It ended up being one of the best decisions the manager made on the night.

Maitland-Niles was excellent supporting the Arsenal attacks, something the other midfielders are struggling with recently. His highlight moment was setting up Emile Smith Rowe’s goal, but he could’ve scored a couple himself.

Though one save and one miss from great positions were a little disappointing, the fact is the midfielder got himself into those positions in a way we rarely see from the alternatives. The way he skipped into the box for his first-half chance was lovely.

The 23-year-old also kept the pressure on high up the pitch and added mobility in the middle. He spoke about that after the match, when asked about what he brings to the role.

“I had a bit of legs in the midfield,” Maitland-Niles said. “Got about, tried to tackle and win the ball back and get up and down the pitch. [To] give us a bit more dynamics.”

Mikel Arteta suggested Maitland-Niles, along with Emile Smith Rowe and Joe Willock, do bring something different in an attacking midfield sense.

“Performances like tonight helps, and he has a chance to play like anyone else,” Arteta said.

“Yes (he added something in attack), the same with Emile and the same that Joe Willock gives in those positions because they are attacking midfielders, they are not holding midfielders.

“They have it in their minds that they want to make those runs, make that final pass, they want to shoot and at the moment we need that: we need people with the mindset to score goals.”

This isn’t to put down Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos, or Mohamed Elneny as players, but they just don’t have that same mindset. You rarely see them finding space in the box like Maitland-Niles did three times on Thursday.

It’s not about being “better” than that senior trio, it’s about being a better fit for that role in the current team. Right now, I’d argue Maitland-Niles is just that.