One ‘B story’ from our trip to Athens this week was the fact that Mikel Arteta preferred to play a lumbering Greek colossus at right back rather than the man who has most regularly occupied that position for us over the last year and a half.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles was on the bench and came on for a few minutes towards the end of our victory over Olimpiacos, but his exclusion from the starting eleven has led to speculation about where he stands in Arteta’s estimation.
So what do we think of Ainsley?
I find him a bit of a mystery, to be honest. Terrific name, of course. I always have the urge to append “MP” to it. Indeed, perhaps we should start referring to him as the Honourable Member for Colney.
We think of him as one of our crop of exciting young players, but he has made 90 appearances for the first team, which makes him something of a fixture. For most of those appearances he has played at right back, covering the long term injury to Hector Bellerin, although he sees his natural position as right midfield or right wing.
It’s fair to say his performances have not always convinced supporters that he could be a permanent answer at fullback, but there has also been an acceptance that he has done pretty well on balance in the role. He is athletic and strong enough to get up and down the line well.
I find his on-field demeanour fascinating. He adopts an impassive expression whatever the circumstances: a crucial sliding tackle to prevent a goal – nothing; trip over and fall on your backside to let the opposition in – nothing; we’ve just gone three goals up in a tough game – nothing; we’ve suffered another embarrassing defeat under Emery – nothing. I’d hate to play poker with the guy: he could be holding a full house or a lousy seven high and you’d have no clue either way. Perhaps the expression (or lack of it) is meant to be cool, or maybe that’s just the way he is. But I was genuinely shocked when I found this photo on the club website:
Who was this charming, good-looking, happy individual? Surely not the Honourable Member for Colney? And yet it was. I’m probably a silly old fart, but I would love to see a bit more of Ainsley Maitland-Smiles on match days.
Ian Wright, one of the most natural goalscorers ever to have pulled on the famous red and white, said in his Desert Island Discs interview this week* that he could not understand modern players who don’t express joy when they do something good and I’m with Ian. Every fan in the stadium or watching on their sofa would give their left arm to play for Arsenal just once… and if that miracle ever happened they’d have a Cheshire Cat smile on their face from start to finish.
I don’t mean to criticise AMN for how he conducts his face. Every man is captain of his own boat. But I wonder if opening up a bit and sharing his emotions would enhance his relationship with the supporters.
Obviously how he looks takes a massive second place to how he performs on the pitch. An Arsenal player could look like the Elephant Man, Gollum, Dobbie the House Elf or Wayne Rooney and no-one would care one bit if his skills were those of a Dennis, Thierry, Liam or Patrick.
So how does AMN play? We have already mentioned the fact that he has seldom had opportunities in his preferred position. As a makeshift right back he has generally been OK (but no more) as a defender, and OK (but no more) going forward. When he has had one or two chances to play in midfield he has, to my memory, been unable to impose himself to any great extent.
Now his place is under threat in both positions. Hector is mostly fit again as our first choice right back and we have signed Cedric Soares as back up. Meanwhile in the right midfield/right wing role AMN is up against the likes of Martinelli, Pepe, Nelson and Willock.
So is the game up for Ainsley?
My feeling is no. It is not going to be easy for him, but I want to see him fight for that right wing berth. We have seen that Arteta’s style is to allow a way back for any player who puts in the work and does enough in training to force himself into the manager’s thinking. Ceballos, Mustafi, Guendouzi to name but three have benefitted from this approach.
And AMN has been given an advantage that most wingers don’t get: he has had a thorough grounding in how to be a fullback at the highest level, an understanding which will massively enhance his contribution if he does get to start at right wing. We can already see how Saka will be a better forward because of the experience he has been soaking up at left back. AMN too could end up forming a terrific relationship with his fullbacks thanks to this grounding.
Ainsley may not have Saka’s potential ceiling, but he has the ability and physical attributes to be a new Ray Parlour: strong, fit, tireless and with enough skill to make a significant contribution. Where the Romford Pele once ran riot, could the Goodmayes Zidane do the same?
The key thing will be a run of games in the first team, and Ainsley will only get that opportunity through hard work and application (possibly with a bit of luck thrown in, in terms of injuries and suspensions to other players).
I’m not prepared to withdraw my vote from The Hon. Mr Maitland-Niles MP just yet.
What do you think?
- If you haven’t heard Ian’s Desert Island Discs you really need to listen to it. It is full of Arsenal stuff and is moving, funny and revealing in equal parts. You can hear it via BBC iPlayer if you’re UK based.