Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Bellerin’s injury could be an opportunity for Maitland-Niles

Morning all. Welcome to a brand new week, and one that should bring with it an official diagnosis of Hector Bellerin’s injury. The right-back was stretchered off against Chelsea on Saturday, a knee ligament issue by the looks of it, and given how serious it looked and where we are in the campaign it’s probably going to be the end of his season.

It leaves Unai Emery with another long-term injury to contend with. Having gone quite a while without any, we’ve now had three this season, each one making his life and work more difficult. Danny Welbeck gave us a lot up front as he could deputise as a striker, or play on the left or the right, and at the time of his cruciate problem Rob Holding was the man around whom our varied defences were being formed.

Now it looks as if Hector is gone and the importance of that shouldn’t be overlooked. With five Premier League assists he is second only to Aaron Ramsey this season when it comes to that particular stat, and his absence is something Emery has to think long and hard about. The recruitment of Stephan Lichtsteiner was designed to provide some experience and back up to Bellerin, as well as bringing something to the dressing room with his character and track record of winning at Juventus.

You could see sense in it but over the course of the season he’s looked every single one of his 35 years, and while I’m sure he can still do a job against certain opposition, I think the pace and intensity of the Premier League is too much for him at this point of his career. Every game looks like a struggle and while in mitigation he has been played out of position a bit and hasn’t been horribly exposed defensively, his profile is so different from that of Bellerin that questions about his suitability have to be asked.

Carl Jenkinson will run through walls for this club, as we all know, and if played will always give us 100%, but in terms of a like for like replacement, or as close as we can get from the current squad, then Ainsley Maitland-Niles appears to be the best man for the job. Like Hector he’s quick, began his career as a forward and still fancies himself to play there in the future, and has all the physical attributes needed to play the right-back role the way Emery wants it to be played. He showed in the Blackpool game he’s got an eye for a pass in the final third too, a vital component for the modern full back.

I think there’s some work for him to do in terms of his defending and concentration but those are things which can be worked on on the training ground. We have coaches who can drill him on where he needs to be and how he has to deal with certain situations, but the raw ingredients are there for him to play that role and further establish himself as a first team player at this club.

His versatility means he hasn’t yet nailed down a fixed position, and maybe right-back is not where he sees himself in the long-term, but right now because of the injury to Bellerin there’s a door opening for him, so if given the nod by Emery it’s a huge opportunity for him. Let’s remember that when Hector broke through it wasn’t simply a question of his talent and Arsene Wenger deciding to put his faith in it. Circumstance played a huge part.

He’d had an indifferent loan spell at Watford the season before which was actually cut short, but an injury to Mathieu Debuchy, Carl Jenkinson being on loan at West Ham and Calum Chambers struggles at right-back meant Wenger had little choice. It was a chance for Bellerin, one that he took, and there was something serendipitous for him in that Debuchy got injured again not long after making his return and Jefferson Montero made mincemeat of Chambers at Swansea with the manager doing little to help the then 19 year old who – it’s worth pointing out – had been in the England team just weeks before.

Of course it was up to Bellerin to stake his claim and play well enough to convince Wenger he was the right man for the job, and after a difficult start away at Borussia Dortmund that’s exactly what he did. Fast forward a few years and he’s cemented his place with us, but the injury creates a similar opportunity for Maitland-Niles in my opinion. Even if he’s not going to spend his entire career as a right-back, it’s a chance to play regularly for Arsenal and develop his talent on the pitch. That talent may then be deployed elsewhere in the future, but when you’re 21 years of age and a chance comes along to be in the team week in, week out, you take it regardless of what job you’re being asked to do.

All this is dependent on him being given the nod of course, but if I were Unai Emery it’s what I would do. The head coach has been desperately unlucky to lose another important player to injury, and I could understand if his reaction was to err on the side of caution and experience, but considering how he wants his team to play and what an important role overlapping full-backs who can produce in the final third have, Maitland-Niles ticks more boxes than Lichtsteiner for me.

Obviously we’ll have to wait and see what he does. Friday’s FA Cup clash with Manchester United could be a Premier League dress rehearsal for Maitland-Niles in some ways. It’s not that it’s a game of no importance, but points and Champions League qualification are so precious this season that the cup becomes a bit secondary. If we see positive signs from him if he plays there then regardless of the result it’s worth a go. Ultimately the decision lies with Emery, so let’s see what he does.

Right, that’s it for this morning. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra, so if you have any questions or topics for discussion, send to us both on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog with the hashtag #arsecastextra. We’ll have that available for you before lunchtime.

Until then.

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