Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ stock has risen with his latest performance against Watford further evidence that he will be able to make the transition from academy graduate to first-team regular. Most impressive has been his ability to perform in central midfield and at full-back, which begs the question of his end destination. The below analysis highlights his attributes allowing a conclusion to be drawn:
Defending One vs. One: It is refreshing to see a modern-day footballer adept at defending one vs one. In an age where both defenders and midfielders are judged on their technical capabilities, it is a throwback to see a player equally comfortable defending alongside the requisite technical quality. Barring Koscielny, he is probably Arsenal’s strongest asset in such situations having won duals against some of the Premier League’s best.
Pace: A sometimes overrated commodity but vital given the speed of today’s game. What is interesting is that pace is a requisite for a full-back but in central midfield, it is more of a USP given it lends itself to effective ball recovery and bursting away from players. Traditional central midfielders do not usually possess such attributes, meaning players like N’Golo Kante (who holds similar qualities) have been able to establish themselves as world-class talents.
Tackling: Given accusations that Arsenal are prone to being bullied, it is comforting to see a presence with bite in the tackle whilst equally happy in the pivotal midfield battle. Fight and character are not attributes that can be taught which is why it is exciting to find them in the Maitland-Niles armoury, especially in the context of our yearning for some Vieira-esque fighting spirit.
Stamina: In modern times, full-back is the most demanding position on the pitch in terms of expected distance covered (tactics dictate modern-day full-backs respect back line positioning but also provide attacking width), Ainsley is energetic enough to fulfil both roles over a 90-minute period. Such stamina when combined with pace in central midfield allows for thrusting drive of which we have already seen glimpses. Interestingly drive is another commodity that we have missed since the Vieira era.
Quality: Providing width is one thing but the ability to beat players and produce quality output is another. Ainsley has shown moments of attacking class including quick feet to beat players and energetic dribbles through midfield, such quality will be a huge bonus (rather than a necessity) if he succeeds in Arsenal’s defensive midfield role.
Passing range: Given his junior status in the squad, functional and efficient passing have been the order of the day for much of the season. Defensive midfielders require simple and proficient passing as a minimum but I suspect there is more to come which is another exciting ingredient to throw into the mix.
Such qualities form a compelling argument for Maitland-Niles as our long-term defensive midfielder which is why I would employ him in the role for the remainder of the Premier League season, whether that be alongside or instead of Xhaka. Given his reliability defending one against one, I would also employ him at right back for our remaining Europa League fixtures.
Could he make a late claim for the England squad? This is likely to be a step too far given the World Cup comes before a season as a first-team regular but there is no doubting he has the required quality. Perhaps if he wasn’t a defensive midfielder (where England don’t currently have a skills gap) he might be this tournaments’ surprise inclusion.