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.
Thank you Rocky for the post and posing the question about Mr M-N MP.
I feel that any young player that is given the opportunity to play in the first team – whether his preferred position or not – should grab the chance with both hands and look to excel. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head Rocky with regard to AMN’s relationship with the supporters. He just doesn’t look like he’s loving it and he bloomin’ well should.
Saying that, I do think he’s Mr Cool personified and that’s his style of man. I was hoping he’d be a great back up at right back and Arteta was using him in mid-field when we became a back three a few games ago. He may have lost his chance as Mikel didn’t use him last Thursday 😦
I felt I owed you an apology on the previous Post, but in case you minded it I have copy/pasted it here.
[Rocky, @ 7:56 p.m.
I do not think there is a more fairly disposed and level headed blogger than you — regrettably I have lost my grasp of communicating English prose to my fellow bloggers, if I ever had it.
You did not need to clarify your position regarding respecting opinions, and I would never dream of intentionally implying otherwise. Sorry for not making that clear. 😩 ]
No apols necessary. Just wanted to be sure you knew I wasn’t being dismissive of your very well argued opinions of the Granit man.
Regarding today’s post, was Ainsley one of those players you saw a lot of when you were watching a lot of the youth team games?
If so, what impression did you get?
A very agreeable Post regarding Ainslie, and fits neatly with my assessment of you as a top blogger.
Luckily there is room for all of us on AA.
I agree that ANM should be given help and encouragement, by Mikel, to settle in as a back-up in one particular position, (FB seems the only possible choice, given the riches in midfield and wing).
I believe too that Ainslie should stick his elbows out and make sure, as far as possible, that he make it very difficult for anyone else to take the place off him, and that is not impossible, as frankly Hector Protector, perhaps because of his persistent injury record, is not the player he looked like becoming some seasons back.
There – I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to be nice like you Rocky 😉 – but if it was down to me, and thankfully it isn’t, I would get rid of both Ainslie and Belli as neither are good enough at FB for a hopefully top EPL team, and neither have any realistic chance of getting into midfield — and, who knows, maybe Mikel agrees, as he has Cedric panting on the leash to show us what he is made of at FB.
Ainslie did not really trigger my radar when I snuck off to watch the youth team(s) – which is probably just as well for him, as most (all?) the ‘sure fire shoo-ins’ I had high hopes for were culled by the club, sooner or later.
C’est la vie.
Laterz my man. 😎
Great analysis Rocky. The irony is that a few months ago many were saying we needed to change most of the team because the players were not up to the desired standard. It couldn’t all be down to the manager .. could it?
And here we are a few weeks into the Arteta era and we seem spoiled for choice in most positions. In that context, it is quite difficult to see how A M-N in his current form will be able to secure a regular starting slot in any of the positions he’s played for us.
But then there is the curse of injuries – multiple injuries often in the same department. No doubt Ainsley will get his chance to shine, and then it’s up to him. Many players who have gone on to become ‘greats’ have taken the opportunity by impressing whilst standing in for a more senior player.
I would slightly disagree with your assessment of Ainsley’s performances in different positions. I think he was a pretty good RB, but looked lost and was ineffective when given his preferred role in central midfield. Many players seem be blind to this … Theo was the same, he was never able to hold the ball up or dribble through tight areas from static yet reckons he is a CF … he was always more effective out wide.
Come on Ollie, mash the spuds. I guess a draw is the best result for us, but I’d be happy if Giroud gets a hattrick 🙂
…. and brilliant goal by Giroud 👍
I celebrated that giroud goal like if he was playing for arsenal
I bet Oli loved that!!
You have set the bar so high that not much can get over it but “ Every man is the captain of his own boat” sails over.
I don’t think we did play 4 at the back with Soc as the RB, I thought it was more like three and a half with Saka under instruction to get forward and as soon as he did Soc, Must and Luiz moved across to make a back 3.
The same did not happen down the right probably for obvious reasons.
Have we ever had a player before where we love it when they score even though they play for a rival? Not sure I’d cheer if he was playing with that chicken on his shirt though 😉
I’m perplexed the spuds aren’t down to 10!
Omg now they’re saying it should’ve been a red card….. bloody hell…. how incompetent…. spuds got away with one there, another human error!
…… and according to Peter Walton it won’t be looked at retrospectively ……. what is the point of them????
Exactly, Peaches 👍
Thanks as always Rocky for your usual balanced assessment and open question to AAers.
I pushed hard in the early stages for A M-N to be played in the position, I believed, and he said suited him best. He has speed, he has a feint and a trick which should have made him the perfect skill set for the “modern”No 10. Not a magician like Mesut, able to look up and not only see a defence splitting, but execute it. More a dynamic drive “througher”, with a Ramsey ability to be there and score late.
I was also keen that, playing him at right back, even right wing back, he skills were not “corrupted” by having to learn the defensive skills. ( I was worried similarly with Saka). But unlike Saka, where Freddie, Mikel and the overall improvement seem to have resulted in progress towards a completed Rubics cube, Ainsley seems to me have gone backwards.
If Rocky is still giving him close to.a fifty/fifty chance in the future, I am closer to 70/30 against.
I do believe, and think this is something to do with being an old fart, that passion is missing in him. Both when he is brilliant and drills a low cross through the box for Aubang to smash in, or gets back to make a potentially goal saving tackle,AND when he cocks up, takes a dummy, commits to the floor and is skinned. As Peaches says, show us you really care, and understand how we would feel pulling on that glorious shirt.
I hope and believe that Smith-Rowe is the one to take the ‘new’ No 10 role in my team of the near future, and wonder now if Ainsley has what it takes!
Ramsey with a goal today also, hoping he stays fit and help Juventus win CL
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I have a white and shirt shirt and