This season at Arsenal, we’ve seen quite a few of our academy prospects come and mix it up with the first team. From Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah who became instant fan favourites, to Ben Sheaf who has come on for brief appearances in the cup competitions, it’s been a good year for the Arsenal youngsters.
The one Arsenal youngster who has without doubt had the best year of the lot is the more experienced Ainsley Maitland-Niles who has played 15 times for the first team this year.
Having made his first-team debut back in 2014/15 in a game against Galatasaray which will be remembered for Aaron Ramsey’s rocket, it’s taken AMN a bit of time to get back into the first team picture.
Since that trip to Turkey, AMN has had a successful loan spell at Ipswich Town in the 2015/16 season before returning to the Arsenal under 23 setup for most of last season.
This year though, thanks to his versatility, we’ve seen AMN rack up a lot of first team minutes despite most of them coming out of his natural position.
By trade AMN is a central midfielder but this season has mostly seen him appear at either left wing back or just left back, and he has been very impressive when called upon.
That impressive form at first saw him cement his place in the Europa League side but then went on to see him take Sead Kolasinac’s place in our main lineup during a period which saw us play against tougher sides like Liverpool and Chelsea.
However, in the past few weeks, circumstances have changed a bit. The reason AMN was able to get that run in the first team was due to injuries and a change in formation to 3-4-2-1, however both Nacho Monreal and Kolasinac are back in contention and with the formation changing back to a four-man defence, there is now less likelihood for AMN to be selected at left back.
On the other hand, with Francis Coquelin departing the club last month for Valencia that opens up another slot in central midfield which he could fill.
In recent weeks since we’ve adopted the 4-3-3 formation, Mohamed Elneny has taken the role of the holding central midfielder, a role he has performed so well it has gotten him an Arsenal Player of the Month nomination.
However, in his two years at Arsenal, the Egyptian has been very much a fringe player having only appeared 44 times for the Gunners.
With this in mind, along with God’s gift to our young players this season which has been the Europa League returning, this could be another opportunity for AMN to fight his way into the main Premier League squad.
The Round of 32 draw was pretty kind to us as we avoided the big boys by being drawn against Ostersunds FK with a week’s turnaround between the home and away legs.
Considering this, as well as the fact that these games are sandwiched between that forgettable North London Derby and two very important games with Manchester City, it should be a given that AMN starts in central midfield on both occasions.
Now with quite a few Arsenal games under his belt, there shouldn’t be the question of ‘is he ready’ as he is currently the bright spark amongst our youngsters along with Iwobi. Also, with this being his preferred position, it’ll be the perfect time to give him games there to follow up his loan spell at Ipswich Town which saw him play predominantly (55% of the time) in the middle of the park.
Playing out of position could work in AMN’s favour when he returns to his more natural position in central midfield, having learnt the demands of an, at times, neighbouring position.
This may see him improve his awareness on the pitch as well as the defensive side of his game when faced with a one-on-one challenge, something he specialised in at left wing back making 16 tackles. Taking on that role also saw him become very sharp in terms of his anticipation as he made 22 interceptions, an aspect of the game which is very handy when playing as a box-to-box midfielder, the role he specifically said he wanted to play on Arsenal’s YouTube page.
Looking at his numbers when going forward this season, AMN has also impressed in that manner. He’s completed 86% of his passes and over his time at left wing-back, massively improved his game in terms of driving past defences which led to him making nine key passes.
Of course, if he moves more centrally into the midfield there will be less of an attacking impetus on him than when he’s a wing back where he is expected to constantly overlap, but that is still very encouraging.
It also shows that now, if needs be, he has it in his locker to take on an opposite number to get us up the pitch and can hopefully deliver upon arrival of the oppositions’ final third.
So, hopefully the two legs against Ostersunds begin AMN’s journey to becoming an established central midfielder and get that number four shirt he’s admitted to wanting. But if they don’t he still has time to develop his game even further.