It didn’t take a rocket scientist or tactical analyst to figure out who was Arsenal’s man of the match against Newcastle on Sunday: Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
The 21-year-old’s brilliant interception and assist for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s strike alone was befitting of such an award and after some pre-season struggles, including a bizarre own goal against Barcelona, you can’t help but feel good for the guy.
But while manager Unai Emery, always one for detail, did praise Maitland-Niles’ “serious” performance at St James’ Park, he did call upon his stand-in right-back to do more to bring consistency into his game.
“He played very seriously,” the Arsenal head coach said. “He’s improving, he can do more and we are speaking with him every day, watching movies with him every day, individually and collectively.
“I say to him congratulations but your challenge is to be consistent today, tomorrow and the next week.”
That level of critical analysis, along with an apparent pep talk in the tunnel from David Luiz, and the congratulations he received from his teammates upon providing Sunday’s assist shows just how well-liked Maitland-Niles is in the Arsenal dressing room and, more and more, we’re starting to see the signs of a player flourishing.
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But this doesn’t make him a soft touch, with Maitland-Niles himself revealing his intention to challenge Hector Bellerin for Arsenal’s right-back role back in March and revealing, once again, how much attention the Gunners’ coaching staff are paying to him.
“I’m still adapting to [the position] but the manager and coaching staff are helping me a lot at the moment,” he told football.london in March. “My best qualities are going forward, creating. I’ve spoken to the manager and he seems to think the same as me.
“When Hector comes back maybe it’ll be a good challenge for me and him.
“It all depends on how he comes back. Hector is a fantastic player and I wouldn’t want to force anybody out of the team, it’s more about healthy competition with him.”
Of course, Maitland-Niles has insisted right-back isn’t his long-term position and that he would prefer to play further forward, his natural attacking instincts will likely dictate that. Keep playing like this, though, and he won’t have an option and may just follow up on that promise of challenging Bellerin.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka vs. Ainsley Maitland-Niles in GW1 of the 2019-20 Premier League season:
Duels won: 9-10
Fouls conceded: 0-1
Fouls won: 0-2
Which double-barreled RB deserves the spot? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/D0YeYU8Wb0
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 12, 2019
It’s long been clear Maitland-Niles is an attacking talent but what we also saw on Sunday is a defensive side of his game that has obviously been worked on. Up against the creative Matt Ritchie and the quite frankly irrepressible Miguel Almiron, the one Newcastle player who looked like he could seriously hurt Arsenal, Maitland-Niles looked fantastic.
He made more tackles (4) than any other player on the pitch and outperformed every other Arsenal teammate in terms of interceptions (3) – one of which led to the goal – and duels won (10). For a player whose defensive capabilities have often been questioned to do this against a player who was until very recently Newcastle’s record signing and the trigger to their attacking revival last season is impressive.
Even the ‘king of defending’ among English right-backs, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, only managed nine duels on the opening weekend, and only made two more tackles than Maitland-Niles, while Trent Alexander-Arnold won just two duels versus Norwich. Could Gareth Southgate, despite having a whole squad of right-backs to choose from, have a bit of a headache on his hands?
You often find that when a player works hard to improve a specific element of his game, other areas can fall by the wayside and they even regress at what they were good at in the first place. This doesn’t seem to be the case with Maitland-Niles, who showcased his brilliant passing range in setting up the goal, but also completed a match-high four dribbles which, incidentally, is more than Wan-Bissaka (2) and Alexander-Arnold (0) combined on the opening weekend.
This isn’t to suggest Maitland-Niles is a better player than either of the aforementioned right-backs now, more that his potential has been somewhat underrated thanks to some initial struggles during his transition into a right-back.
But with Emery’s attentive guiding hand and Maitland-Niles’ relentless work ethic, Bellerin might just have a bit of a problem fighting his way back into the starting XI when he returns to fitness next month.