Monday, May 20, 2024

Ainsley Maitland Trials

Arsenal have a colourful recent history in the full-back position. Playing at full-back was something of an initiation ceremony under Arsene Wenger, his ‘last throw of the dice’ substitutions usually involved pitting a random attacker at full-back. In the academy teams, Arsenal often deliberately operated without a specialised full-back because the position was seen as a valuable educational tool for player development.

Young midfielders often undertook 6 month secondments as attacking full-backs. This was how Hector Bellerin, originally a winger, settled into the position. In the first team, full-back has thrown up some unlikely heroes, some curious villains and a host of scenarios that make you wonder if the position is haunted somehow. Hector Bellerin’s unfortunate injury forms the latest chapter in Arsenal’s full-back Point Horror.

But it is also a position that has provided unlikely opportunities. Would Ashley Cole have become the finest left-back of his generation were it not for Silvinho’s, ahem, “administrative issues”? Cole’s Arsenal tenure ended acrimoniously to say the least, moving swiftly from homegrown hero to perceived Judas at the stroke of a ghost writer’s pen.

Arsene Wenger admitted that he surreptitiously brought Lauren, a midfielder, to Arsenal as a long term heir to Lee Dixon. Indeed, the entire Invincibles back four was forged from former midfielders. Curiously, the team has suffered from countless full-back shortages due to accumulated injuries. Ashley Cole, Gael Clichy, Lauren, Pascal Cygan and Sebastien Larsson all played at left-back during the 2005-06 season before Arsenal were pretty much forced to field Mathieu Flamini there.

Flamini formed part of a bandaged up defence that would keep a record ten consecutive clean sheets in the Champions League. In the 2011-12 season, Johan Djourou, Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny all started Premier League matches at full-back. Nico Yennaris played 45 minutes against Manchester United at right-back during that period.

There has been no shortage of curious story arcs on the flanks of the Gunners back line. After watching Armand Traore- who was once arrested for possession of a knuckle duster at White Hart Lane- amble his way through the infamous 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, Arsene Wenger panic bought Andre Santos from Fenerbaçhe, who proved to be an interesting purchase to say the least.

Carl Jenkinson is considered one of the more heart-warming and unique stories of the last decade. Two years ago, the Gunners bought Cohen Bramall from Hednesford Town in a perhaps misguided bid to out Leicester Leicester. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain briefly threatened to make a sustained impact as a right wing-back but left the club because, ostensibly, he didn’t want to be a right wing-back.

Hector Bellerin’s breakthrough was guided by ill-fortune for more senior teammates. Mathieu Debuchy’s maiden season at the club was plagued by injury, while Calum Chambers, in some dark corner of his mind, is still chasing Jefferson Montero’s shadow. Bellerin’s opportunity arose unexpectedly out of crises. The Spaniard found that crisis is the midwife to opportunity.

Which brings us to the current situation. Bellerin’s knee injury is a crushing blow for the player and for the team. Unai Emery has particular attacking requirements for his full-backs and Bellerin is capable of fulfilling them. Stephan Lichtsteiner’s acclimatisation to life at Arsenal has been difficult. This is not because he has suddenly become a useless footballer, even if he is in the autumn of his career.

Few players of that age demonstrate their true potential as bit part players, often asked to do slightly irregular jobs at sporadic intervals in a back line ravaged by injury. Over the festive period, the Swiss did not cover himself in glory, but he was asked to play as a right-back, a right-wing back, a left-back and a centre half in a back 3 in a defensive line-up more malleable than play-doh.

Allied to the fact that he is adjusting to a new league, there is mitigation in his sketchy performances. However, Bellerin’s injury represents more of an opportunity for Ainsley Maitland-Niles than Stephan Lichtsteiner, because Lichtsteiner has a totally different profile to Bellerin and swapping one for the other fundamentally disrupts Arsenal’s style.

This is likely a symptom of a player being brought in prior to the appointment of a new manager. I rather doubt Emery would have sanctioned Lichtsteiner’s signing had Mislintat and Sanllehi presented it to him. Maitland-Niles has a broadly similar physical profile to Bellerin. It’s not quite the same, but it never is when you lose an important player to injury. Maitland-Niles ought to be able to perform a workable facsimile of what the Spaniard offers.

This is a crossroads in Maitland-Niles’ burgeoning Arsenal career too- which is another reason that this ought to be more of an opportunity for him than it is for Lichtsteiner or even Jenkinson. The futures of the Lichtsteiner and Jenkinson are decided, both are unlikely to be Arsenal players next season. Maitland-Niles has hung around the fringes of the squad for the last season or so without ever really establishing himself. This is a good opportunity for him to cement his Gunners future.

He was, of course, awarded a new contract last summer, but I think that was more about asset protection than an affirmative show of faith. Ainsley would probably prefer to play in central midfield, but the reality is, his best opportunity is to grab the chance to establish himself as a reliable back up full-back.

Arsenal are no longer in the League Cup, there is little prospect of playing lower league opposition again this season and the Europa League is in its knockout stage. There won’t be many more ‘heavily rotated sides’ this season, which means, unless there is a midfield injury crisis, AMN probably won’t have the opportunity to play in midfield. He needs to jump on the train that is on the platform.

In the long-term, Emery will need full-back cover when Jenkinson’s Arsenal story concludes and Lichtsteiner’s contract expires. It doesn’t necessarily mean Maitland-Niles has to be a full-back forever, but, in my view, he has a far better chance of proving himself to the manager by taking this opportunity that has been presented to him. He is not totally established as a midfielder yet and needn’t be pigeon holed in perpetuity.

Full-back is an exciting role in an Emery team, it needn’t be viewed as the ‘last kid to be picked in the playground’ position, as it has been historically. The opportunity probably isn’t the one that Maitland-Niles truly wants and it hasn’t arisen in ideal circumstances for the team. But such is the way for academy graduates and, as recent history shows, at Arsenal the full-back position has thrown up plenty of unlikely heroes.

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