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Arteta's Maitland-Niles decision must secure long-term Arsenal vision

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On Saturday [May 23], The Atheltic reported that Ainsley Maitland-Niles is likely to be moved on by Arsenal in the summer after falling out of contention but if this were to happen, Mikel Arteta would be losing one of the most useful players in his squad to date.

Having been one the most influential players in the first weeks of the Spaniard's spell in charge, Maitland-Niles last start before the enforced break came in the 1-1 draw to Sheffield United. Since then, he had only made three cameo appearances in the dying stages of three games and played 45 minutes as a left-back for the Under-23s in February.

Discussing the 22-year-old's absence from the starting lineups, Arteta told football.london : "Ainsley needs to put his head down, work hard and show me every day in training he wants it more than anybody else and that he wants to play for this club and fight for his place." in March.

Following this and The Athletic's reports that Maitland-Niles had been late to training sessions, it was believed that his attitude was the reason for him being dropped. Add the fact that he has openly spoken about wanting to play in midfield for the past few seasons and him dropping out of contention makes sense.

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What cannot be argued with, however, is that despite not being a natural full-back, the academy graduate has been Arteta's most reliable option at right-back. Especially considering how he eased into the more inverted role introduced by the Spaniard when he arrived.

Hector Bellerin struggled to have as seamless a transition to the demands before his injury setbacks, Sokratis has looked awkward whenever he's been shifted out to the right and Cedric Soares hasn't had a chance to prove himself there yet.

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As a more natural midfielder that has spent the past three years playing as a full-back [on both sides], Maitland-Niles proved he was best suited to this role. Asked to take up more central positions both with and without possession, he had the awareness, technique and agility to flourish there, whereas his connection to the midfield helped in situations he was often caught out in beforehand.

The 22-year-old's performance in the New Year's Day win over Manchester United was the perfect example of how to execute the fundamentals of the role. When Arsenal were in possession, his positioning offered the centre-backs and midfielders new passing lanes which were incredibly hard for United to keep track of and led to Sokratis' goal. Out of possession, staying infield meant he offered the perfect cover for the midfield if they were beaten as he could quickly nip in to steal and recycle the ball.

Even if he wasn't playing in his dream position, the level he was performing at meant that when he was dropped out of the team, Arsenal suffered. Bellerin did score on his return against Chelsea, but was played after suffering a setback in the winter break which took it's toll in the Europa League exit against Olympiacos. Not being reinstated after that meant Sokratis would come into the side and pretty much keep himself restricted to playing in his own half.

In his time in charge, Arteta has demonstrated with multiple players how quickly perceptions can change with a matter of tailoring their on-field roles. He has done so with Granit Xhaka, David Luiz and even Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang [who is now looked at as a more team-orientated player because of his defensive contributions] who's to say that can't be done with Maitland-Niles?

He has already proven that he could be a first choice option in the inverted right-back role but by doing so, has indirectly been showing that he can cope in his preferred position of central midfield.

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Spending so much time tucked in almost as a third central midfielder, he has displayed the skills needed to succeed there. An ability to sniff out danger in defence, the agility and strength to get himself out of tight situations and the composure to find the right pass when needed, very similar to the job Dani Ceballos has been doing, which despite him 'falling out of contention' has not gone unnoticed.

"He can play in various positions and do really well at full-back as well," Arteta said in January. "He’s a very useful player with great speed, technically gifted, a good passer of the ball and he can play as an attacking midfielder because he’s a threat every time with his runs. And he can play a holding midfielder because he’s played a lot there in his career.

"We have some necessities in certain areas, playing some players in positions that are not really their positions.

"With more time I would like to have specialists for every position to do exactly what we want to do. But Ainsley has adapted really well to that position (right-back)."

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Following Arsenal's return London Colney, Bellerin and Cedric have both been pictured training seeming to have recovered from their respective pre-lockdown injuries.

This may open the door for Arteta to truly find out how they deal with the inverted full-back role, but even so, that could work in Maitland-Niles' favour as there would be more scope for him to progress in his preferred position.

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Under Arsene Wenger, he excelled when played in central midfield, even if those chances were made sparse because of injuries to full-backs. His man of the match performance at Old Trafford in the 2017/18 season remains one of his best performances in an Arsenal shirt and it's no surprise it was in the position he feels most comfortable.

Building on that confidence as a potential replacement for Ceballos when he returns to Real Madrid is just one possibility that the 22-year-old's versatility offers Arteta. Some may argue that versatility hinders Arsenal but since breaking into the first team in 2017/18, if he wasn't able to fill in at right-back and left-back, the Gunners would have been in massive trouble.

The club handed Maitland-Niles a five-year contract in 2018 [expires in 2023] and if they were to let go of him after three seasons of him continuously sacrificing his wants for the needs of the side [by playing at full-back] and developing into the best performing player in his position, it would seem like a waste on their part.




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