Gunner Thoughts

The balancing act: Maitland-Niles and Saka

Two games into the season, two left wingback options offering Arteta a nice balance for selection.

The position in which Arsenal stand, and the upcoming matches before them, put the Gunners in a peculiar place. They have played two polar opposite matches. One that showcased exactly what they are capable of, and another that exposed a serious flaw in their potential. They have had that flaw for a while, but at the end of last season it seemed as though their days of playing as poorly as they did against West Ham was behind them. 

I will applaud them for finding a way to win. I truly believe that finding ways to win points on the inevitable days your squad isn’t up to snuff, and your play isn’t clicking, is intrinsic to success in the Premier League. Someone pointed out to me, good teams are teams that play well, not ones that simply get points when they play poorly – and it’s true. However, rising to the occasions, staying mentally strong, and doing what it takes to work an extra quality chance to get the result is the mark of a team that has the potential for success. As long as Arsenal limit the amount of game they play quite that poorly, things may just work out alright.

Especially when we look at how early Arsenal are in the stages of this season, and the volatile state of their squad. Just look at yesterday’s blog of transfer updates. There are plenty of people on the chopping block, a couple more that will potentially be sold if the opportune moment arises, and a few key players left for the club to attempt to purchase.

The idea that Arteta should be identifying his “best” starting eleven is near ludicrous. How could he? He has two new young defenders that aren’t fully ready, although Gabriel has been excellent these last two games, he has a midfield that isn’t consistently clicking, he has a new winger in Willian that is taking the spot of an important winger in Pepe, he has spoken about his desire to involve Willian more centrally, he has a formation that isn’t likely to be the long term solution, and that formation is putting an extra defender into the game out of necessity – despite that fact that creating chances is nearly as big of a problem as protecting the backline.

As this point, Arteta is left trying to address each game, one at a time, identify what will be the larger problem – defending or breaking down a low block – and selecting a few people solely based on their ability to help solve that specific problem. It’s this thought process that brings us to the left wingback role.

Realistically there are three that Arteta could consider playing on the left – Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Bukayo Saka, and Kieran Tierney. It would be fair to assume that at some point we will see Tierney slide out to take up the role. The issue with that is it would mean Gabriel has made his way to the left center back role and that Arteta’s build-up progression needs a significant chance.

Right now, the ideal pattern has the left wingback tucking in centrally to help the midfield and getting up into the attack, while the left center back overlaps them to the outside and looks to overlap Aubameyang, as well. By doing this, it stretches the defensive backline and creates the potential for an overload, or frees up space for Aubameyang. It’s hard to imagine that Gabriel has the athleticism to get up and down the line to offer this. It’s not out of the question, but it suggests that we may continue to see more of Kieran Tierney at center back leaving a vacancy for left wingback.

In what was, and is, perceived as a battle for that left wingback spot, Arteta may consider both Niles and Saka as starters and both as substitutes on any given day. Because if there is one thing we have seen in the small scope of games – both Maitland-Niles and Saka offer different packages within that position.

While everyone played poorly and his game suffered as well, Saka showed us that he is the better attacking option with the ability to get into the attack, tuck centrally and play between the lines, and come up with a ball that unlocks the defense. It may not be the best usage of Saka over time, but for now it gets him on the field. He adds quality to the side, and with two unlocking balls that eventually led to goals – he can produce the goods.

Maitland-Niles on the other hand, has demonstrated a keen ability to be tasked with shutting down key attackers on the defensive end, while being versatile enough to still offer some services through the midfield, and in the attack. He played a key role in Arsenal’s win over Chelsea in the FA Cup finals and an even larger one in their Community Shield win over Liverpool when he kept Mohammed Salah quiet for the afternoon. Maitland-Niles, along with Tierney, has proven to be a formidable, defensive pairing.

What does this offer Arteta? Balance. Options. Variety. The ability to look the at the game in front of him, identify what type or player is going to be most influential in carrying out his game plan and slotting in the respective wingback. It’s truly a win-win situation for him. Both players can come in and do a good job, neither is in that strong of a position to make any demands over being given the starting role – and even if they could, we saw what Arteta did with Emi’s demands – and both have the ability to drastically improve the game plan Arteta sets forth.

Look, I know Saka struggled for much of the match against West Ham, and that aside from those two moments he was average, but so was the team. And two moments of brilliance can win you a game, as it did! Additionally, I fully believe that if he is partnered with a left center back that can get up the up the line and back in defense, like Tierney, instead of Kolasinac who struggled to get into the attack and struggled to get back and defend, you will see an even more effective Bukayo Saka.

So, let’s look ahead. Arsenal play Leicester City in a game whose lineup could be a toss-up that sees neither play. I would love to see Saliba play, but we can get to that in tomorrow’s pre-match blog. Then Arsenal play Liverpool, a match that definitely feels like a fit for Maitland-Niles. Following that, Sheffield, a perfect match for Saka to help the side add a little extra oomph in the attack. Then Manchester City, another prime Niles matchup.

The list goes on and Arteta will have a fairly simple and repetitive choice to make until there is full overhaul of the midfield and wingbacks aren’t used. The pair offers options and balance each other out, and it’s exactly how Arteta should look to use them.

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