Let me start by saying congratulations to both Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka for getting caps with the England national team last night in a 3-0 win over Wales. It is entirely deserved, both have been great under Mikel Arteta, and it was only a matter of time before Southgate came knocking on their door.
England v. Wales: 76’ Maitland-Niles On, Saka Off
It’s something I believe we may see a lot of this year when the pair return to the red and white. Saka on for most the game, Maitland-Niles once again reduced to playing a backup role for the squad, left to get starts in a few cup games, maybe the Europa League group stages, but not nearly the impact many will be hoping for. His value as a member of Arsenal, unquestionable. His value as a key, consistent starter, something to question a lot.
It’s not that he couldn’t do the job if asked or that if someone were to become injured, he couldn’t step in without missing he beat. He could and he has proven it. He is a fantastic player, and yet I find his versatility this odd combination of his greatest asset and fatal flaw. A jack of many trades and the master of none within Arsenal’s squad.
That isn’t to disrespect what he has achieved in the last 3 months, nor to pretend he isn’t a much better option than Cedric Soares, but the more games that are played, the more the team takes shape, the more the tactics are developed, the less convinced I am that there will be room for Maitland-Niles in Arsenal’s starting lineup when it all shakes out.
Maitland-Niles more or less plays in 3 positions, and none of them are in the center of the midfield. Talk as much as you want about his ability at center midfield, when you make 5 first team appearances in the center of the park since 2016, it’s hardly a role you’re being considered for. Now, I understand that he tucks into more central positions when he plays within Arteta’s 3-4-3, but Arsenal’s true midfield is becoming relatively cutthroat between Xhaka, Ceballos, Willian, Saka, Elneny, and new man Thomas Partey. Add in Willock and Smith Rowe, and the guest list is looking a little tight.
This leaves him with left wingback, right wingback, and right back. Competing with Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka, and Hector Bellerin for a stating position (Sorry Ced, it’s a definitive no for me).
Let’s start with his left-sided options. Before, it seemed as though we would see Maitland-Niles start in more defensive matches at the left wingback, while Bukayo Saka gets the call in matches that require us to break teams down. It makes sense and is a concept I had bought into. In fact, I wrote about the balancing effect that Saka and Niles offer Arteta when it comes to selection. The problem forming is that Saka is becoming better and better by the match, and more and more un-droppable by the minute.
Even in matches where he is tasked with helping in the attack, Saka is doing it on the defensive end, as well. Against Sheffield United, Saka had 2 tackles, while winning us 4 fouls, having 2 successful dribbles, 2 shots, and 1 goal. After all, Saka did spend time as Arsenal’s left back last year, and even with him given the freedom to get forward because Xhaka was dropping into the backline to help, Saka was posting decent midfield, defensive stats. Backing him up with a stout defender like Tierney is a great way to allow Saka to play his role in defense, but offer his creation services in attack, which are still desperately needed.
To add to Maitland-Niles left sided woes, there is a very real world in which Gabriel also becomes someone that Arteta finds “un-droppable” but looks to have him or Luiz play that left center back role in matches. This requires Arteta to alter his build up play, given that Gabriel will hardly be capable of covering the same ground Tierney does from that left center back position, however, Gabriel does offer his height, strength, defensive qualities, and passing range. If Arteta were to go this route, Tierney would surely take up the left wingback role. After all, Tierney has proven himself to be the leading man on the left.
What happens on the left when we shift to a four-back system? That shift was a major point to adding the likes of Partey. Well, that removes a defender and most certainly will see the left made up of a Tierney, Saka, Aubameyang combination, and maybe an occasional Willian or Pepe. But it’s hard to see Niles cracking his way into the side.
It leaves him with the right side, and by far the most contentious point of this piece. Can Maitland-Niles overtake Bellerin on the right. If you asked much of the fanbase 5 months ago, the job was his. Bellerin was struggling immensely after coming back from significant injury, he didn’t look as though he had faith in his legs, he wasn’t getting into the attack, and all around was poor.
Whether it was a matter of time, a feeling of competitive burn, or a combination of both — Bellerin has turned things around in a massive way, including putting on a performance worthy of Man of the Match considerations against Sheffield. He has been up into the attack, working with the right wing to decide who goes central and who stays wide, he is helping to recycle the attack, break teams down, creating chances, and taking shots.
Additionally, he is progressing the ball into the final third, carrying it through the midfield, growing his connection with Pepe and Willian, and is more present and effective in the attack than we are seeing Maitland-Niles.
While Bellerin has put on a string of good performances lately, when was it he kicked himself into the next gear offensively? When Arsenal switched to the back four. It’s a system that Bellerin is comfortable with, and one some people may have questions about when it comes to Maitland-Niles.
There are some downsides to Bellerin, no doubt. He has been a bit too soft into challenges and left Holding out to dry on a few occasions. I also thought the blame lied with him on Liverpool’s goal by Andy Robertson on the back post. His communication with Rob Holding was poor and he didn’t keep his head on a swivel to see the late run. In the end, Holding has gotten just a little bit of his head on the cross but it’s fallen to an unmarked Robertson to give Liverpool the lead 2-1.
It’s things to improve on. Things to work on. But given his recent run of form, the performances, the way he has gone about them, the way he has gelled with the squad, and the way he seems to be getting better with each performance, I am finding it tough to see Maitland-Niles breaking into the right with regular occurrence.
So if Saka and Tierney are getting the calls on the left and Hector is retaking his mantle on the right as someone that is offering a real attacking threat for a side that needs their attack to be spread amongst everyone — where does Maitland-Niles fit and what would not fitting mean for him?
Maitland-Niles is under contract until 2023, which gives Arsenal adequate time to assess the situation and makes a decision. We know he is at least the true number two on the right, given that he is significantly better than Cedric Soares, a purchase I struggle to understand even when we thought Niles would leave, which brings us to an additional point. We know Maitland-Niles at one point seemed to have a foot out of the door.
So, what happens for Maitland-Niles if he struggles to get regular appearances this year? He doesn’t seem content to be a backup. His call up to the national team means he is in the conversation, but to stay there he will need regular minutes. Arsenal have another right back as backup technically and I’m left with a resounding feeling that by the end of this season, we will see Maitland-Niles back in conversations to leave.