An exclusive report from the Athletic’s David Ornstein caught my attention last week. The subject was Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and his desire leave Arsenal in pursuit of playing time.
Per the report, Maitland-Niles “senses a lack of trust in him from (Mikel) Arteta” and believes the time is right for him to sever his association with the club.
Since that bit of news, the versatile midfielder has featured in wins over Liverpool and Manchester City, starting the latter and impressing to such a degree that Arteta felt compelled to single him out of praise.
“I was sure about that with the way he’s training, the way he’s changed his mentality and his mindset.”
“He has everything, he has great qualities, I believe in him. I had to give him opportunities and today he took it with both arms.”
A cynic might be tempted to look on this episode as the head coach having his hand forced and caving, or as an attempt at appeasement from Arteta to Maitland-Niles. That would be understandable: we are still learning precisely what sort of coach the Spaniard is, and every game, every soundbite and every decision offers a window into his thinking.
One thing that has immediately become clear in terms of Arteta’s approach to man management is his propensity to reintegrate and effusively praise players who buy in after a period of reluctance or poor form. The above quotes are in line with that behavioural pattern, and we saw the same with Dani Ceballos, who has kicked on and grown from strength to strength. Of course, he is playing consistently, while Maitland-Niles is not; it’s easier to sell that approval as genuine when it’s reflected in game time.
That said, despite not playing as much as he would like, it is quite odd that the 22-year-old would feel he does not have the trust of the head coach. Nothing is farther from the truth; in fact, when you consider the specificity of the roles and responsibilities he has been tasked with by Arteta, clearly the opposite is true.
When Arteta took charge, his first idea was a 4-2-3-1 with an assymetrical slant in attack. In this shape, the right-back fulfilled an important function. In possession, he needed to step into midfield to offer a passing option for the centre-backs and overload the centre, opening up the right flank for the winger to profit 1v1. In defensive transitions, he would be required to participate in an energetic counterpress, and his narrow positioning meant he was in the optimal position to protect against counter-attacks.
A very specific, tactically important role, then. Arteta entrusted this to Maitland-Niles, who started all of the Spaniard’s first five league games. Only the return of Hector Bellerin, combined with Maitland-Niles’ own indiscretion in training, saw him lose his spot and fall out of Arteta’s good graces completely.
After the football restarted, he was back in the fold, and started in the FA Cup win over Sheffield United in a 3-4-3. He excelled, combining well with club record signing Nicolas Pepe in a way that Bellerin had, to that point, failed to. However, with games coming thick and fast, rotation was the name of the game, and so he was not utilized in the following game, the 4-0 thrashing of Norwich. However, in the 2-0 win away at Wolves, he was once again involved, but not from the start.
The hosts started with a front two of Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore in attack, but went into the break a goal down, thanks to Bukayo Saka’s brilliant finish. Upon the restart, Nuno Espirito Santo changed the shape of his side, going to a 3-4-3 and moving Traore out wide. Arteta responded immediately, taking off left-back Kieran Tierney on 56 minutes.
The Scot was neither injured nor fatigued, however. This was purely tactical: up against the physicality of Traore, Arteta needed someone who could go toe-to-toe with him and play him perfectly.
The man he trusted with that responsibility? Maitland-Niles. Beyond a chance early in that second half, the muscle-bound winger did not get a sniff.
For the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday, Arteta presented the hybrid 3-4-3/4-3-3 shape he had trialled in the win over Liverpool. Crucial to its execution was the left wing-back being able to play two roles: defend the tricky Riyad Mahrez out of possession, and then push on in possession and either overlap or underlap Pierre Emerick Aubameyang on the left.
A highly specific, tactically important brief then, and in a major semi-final against one of the best teams in Europe no less. Who did Arteta trust for it? Maitland-Niles. Mahrez endured a frustrating hour, mostly unable to come inside onto his stronger foot, and his replacement Phil Foden fared no better.
The pattern here is clear. Whereas Maitland-Niles may not be the first name on the teamsheet (yet), Arteta has largely indicated, by his actions, that he not only trusts him, but that he rates his intelligence and ability to carry out bespoke tactical briefs.
It would be a shame then to lose Maitland-Niles on this account. Players like him – versatile, adaptable, intelligent – often are overlooked, but are crucial for providing solutions and options.
A further sticking point for him, it would seem, is a desire to play in midfield; well, he is playing in midfield, essentially—that’s his role in possession! Besides, it is obvious the current system being used by Arteta, with only two nominal central midfielders, is a temporary solution necessitated not only by the resources available to him, but by the constraints of time. My hunch is that, if Maitland-Niles sticks around, there will be opportunities for him as part of a midfield three next season. If he leaves, however, we will never know.
There was something particularly heartwarming about the long, deep hug he shared with Arteta after the semi-final; clearly, the head coach wants him to stay, and has demonstrated that in every way possible.
Your move, Ains.
Solace is a freelance football journalist, a tactics writer and an African football columnist with Goal. He’s also been an Arsenal fan since 2002.