Monday, July 22, 2024

I can see for Niles

Sunday was a good day to be Ainsley Maitland-Niles. He turned 23, won man of the match in the Community Shield and converted his penalty in the shootout with characteristic nonchalance. That evening, he was also called into the England squad for the first time. Gareth Southgate didn’t call up any recognised left-backs, so Ainsley’s chances of winning a first cap are strong.

All of this led to many Arsenal fans to question the wisdom of selling him to Wolves, who last week sold their first-choice right-back Matt Doherty to Tottenham. I must admit that I was always dubious of the accepted wisdom that Niles had an issue with playing as a wing-back. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall any strong quotes from him to that effect, other than to say his favoured position was as more of a winger.

With stellar Wembley performances against Manchester City, Chelsea and now Liverpool recently, many Arsenal fans, myself included, wonder if this is a player Arsenal would be better served holding onto. Aged 23, Maitland-Niles is no longer a greenhorn and it is showing in his mature displays at wing-back. For some time, Maitland-Niles’ versatility seemed like a blessing for Arsenal and a curse for the player himself.

He started very positively under Mikel Arteta as a right-back, who would push in-field and become a third central midfielder out of possession. Then his appearances dried up suddenly with suggestions that the coach had become dissatisfied with his attitude. In January, Cedric Soares was signed from Southampton, which seemed to spell the end for Maitland-Niles.

However, as with Ceballos and Pepe before him, Maitland-Niles fought his way back into contention. Since the switch to a 3-4-3 system, he has become a key player. Lining up as a left wing-back when the team are defending, he rolls into a left-sided central-midfield role when Arsenal have the ball with Tierney shifting over from left centre-half to left-back.

Maitland-Niles’ versatility has always been useful to Arsenal, though many of us couldn’t decide whether he would eventually become a midfielder or a full-back. Arteta’s answer has been to make him both at the same time! The left wing-back-cum-central-midfielder role is custom designed for his talents.

Ainsley has also made an impression as a one-on-one defender against some of the league’s most frightening wingers. His superhuman composure makes him ideal for a duel of wits against tricky take-on merchants. He is an excellent stand-up tackler. All of which to say he is the perfect player for this system.

It stands to reason that Arsenal fans are revisiting the wisdom of selling him on. The signing of Cedric Soares has, so far, failed to impress. This isn’t really Cedric’s fault because he has been injured for the majority of his Gunners tenure. Cedric’s reputation has also suffered because of his age- many Arsenal fans are wary about signing 29-year olds to four-year Bosman inflated contracts.

Many Arsenal fans are also wary because of his agent, Kia Joorabchian, whose relationship with the club seems cosy to say the least and has been brought under further scrutiny since the departure of Raul Sanllehi and several key scouts. Again, that isn’t Cedric’s fault at all; but he has almost been declared guilty by association.

We haven’t had a sustained opportunity to see what the Portuguese can do and he may have qualities that Arsenal really need from the position. Arteta certainly seems to like him. For the time being, many of us are asking whether the squad is squeezing out a superior option in Maitland-Niles or Bellerin to make room for a more underwhelming player. However, Arsenal need funds, they have three right-backs and Cedric has a) only just signed and b) wouldn’t raise the kind of capital Arsenal require anyway.

Of course, Maitland-Niles might have expressed a desire to leave in January, encouraging the club into the market for Cedric. Arsenal fans might be frustrated that two academy products who have shown such promise in Maitland-Niles and Martinez, or a popular player like Bellerin, could be sold this summer to raise much needed revenue.

The club have made a series of poor transfer and contract decisions in recent years meaning there was always going to be an air of ‘killing our darlings’ to the next couple of windows as difficult decisions are taken. What is most interesting to me, however, in the debate over the sale of Maitland-Niles is the team Arsenal currently are versus the team they aspire to be.

Arteta’s side are well-drilled in playing on the counter against the bigger teams. The problem they need to solve this season is playing against deep blocks when opponents surrender the initiative. That will be the situation Arteta and his team are faced with for the majority of their fixtures next season.

Is Maitland-Niles as important a player for Plan A as he is Plan B? Or does that quasi wing-back / left sided midfielder role suit Bukayo Saka better in games against the smaller sides? Indeed, will Arsenal even play with wing-backs in those games or will they revert to a back four? My best guess would be that 343 is here to stay for next season because one transfer window isn’t sufficient to upgrade the midfield to the extent that it is required [assuming Arteta does want to move to a 433 or similar].

Arteta’s tenure began with a back four and Maitland-Niles played very well as an inverted right-back, roaming into central midfield out of possession. If and when Arsenal eventually move away from the back three / five, there is evidence that Ainsley can meet those requirements. My best guess is that Arsenal acted to bring Soares in because they saw no future for Maitland-Niles and that Arteta’s mind has been changed since; but Arsenal need money to buy a midfield so something has to give with either Bellerin or Maitland-Niles.

Four months ago; I think Niles was a straightforward sale in Arsenal’s mind and that circumstances have changed but the club’s need to generate cash hasn’t. It seems unlikely that Arsenal can keep Ainsley, Hector AND buy a midfield. In a month when Arsenal’s separation from Serge Gnabry has become a repeat topic they may fear repeating the error with Niles.

On the other hand, Arteta might consider that the player is only crucial for around 20% of his team’s fixtures and while, in an ideal world, he would rather have Maitland-Niles in his deck, the player might be ripe for sacrifice. Either way, an unpopular decision will have to be taken.

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