Arsenal are set for a busy summer transfer window as Mikel Arteta plans a huge summer rebuild in an attempt to bridge the gap between his side and last season’s top-four Premier League sides.
football.london reported back in May that the Spaniard planned to add at least five players to the ranks this summer, with a goalkeeper, a left-back, a right-back and two midfielders all on the agenda in the coming weeks.
The Gunners have already addressed two of these positions, signing Portuguese left-back Nuno Tavares and Belgian central-midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga from Benfica and Anderlecht respectively.
With Hector Bellerin seemingly on his way out of the Emirates in the near future, Arteta may look to find a replacement on the right side of the defence.
Norwich’s Max Aarons and RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams have both been mooted as potential signings but Arsenal can cave themselves the hassle of bringing in another new player by using an internal solution in the form of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and here’s why.
Early form under Arteta
The Englishman was deployed as a right-back in Arteta’s first five games as Arsenal boss, playing 90 minutes in all five encounters before Bellerin displaced him for a 2-2 draw away to Chelsea.
It may seem strange to cite 450 minutes of Premier League action as an apt sample size but that is a testament to how good Maitland-Niles looked when utilised on the right flank.
In those games, the 23-year-old was deployed as an inverted full-back, combining the positions that he had previously been used in – central midfield and as a traditional right-back in a back four.
His new role was perfect for his playing style, given he has a rare blend of physical and technical attributes that allow him to excel at either end of the pitch, something that is crucial for a modern-day fullback to succeed.
The Hale End graduate also boasts noteworthy composure on the ball – a trait that some Arsenal fans believe can be the reason for his downfall given he can at times look lackadaisical on the ball before giving it away in dangerous areas.
Arteta’s seemingly learned a few things at Manchester City, under Pep Guardiola’s stewardship, when it comes to playing an inverted full-back to help his side build from the back.
However, Guardiola often would play with two inverted fullbacks, effectively forming a 2-3-2-3 formation in possession while Arteta preferred to opt for just one, allowing his side to play in a 3-2-3-2 shape.
Granit Xhaka would drop deep to form a back three as Maitland-Niles tucked into midfield alongside Lucas Torreira, a tactical move that allowed Saed Kolasinac to stay high and wide on the left flank.
Maitland-Niles’ position allowed the Gunners to progress the ball efficiently between the lines whilst also adhering to a tactical principle that Guardiola religiously follows that states no more than two players should be aligned vertically in any phase of play.
Fitting into current side
Arsenal’s team looks drastically different now compared to when the versatile defender was last the starting right-back and the north Londoners could have much more success tucking Maitland-Niles into midfield now given Kolasinac has been displaced by Tierney, who struggled with injury problems during Arteta’s early days.
Effectively, Maitland-Niles would be the perfect full-back partner for Tierney as the English international would offer protection in transition whilst the former Celtic defender can stay high and wide, taking full advantage of his ability to deliver crosses into the box.
Furthermore, Brazilian defender Gabriel, along with potential newcomer Ben White, is a much faster centre-back partnership than the aforementioned Sokratis and David Luiz, meaning the Gunners wouldn’t need a midfielder to drop deep and could lineup with a 2-3-5 in possession this time around.
Maitland-Niles is also much more than someone who offers balance and tactical ingenuity to the side. In fact, he has been one of Arsenal’s best secret weapons to keep usually dangerous wingers extremely quiet.
The 23-year-old was utilised as a left wing-back towards the latter stages of the 2019/20 campaign, successfully keeping Riyad Mahrez, Mohamed Salah and Adama Traore quiet across a stretch of games that earned him his first England call-up last summer.
One potential problem
One issue that could halt this, however, is the Hale End graduate’s feelings on playing at full-back, given he has previously expressed his preference to play in midfield.
He admitted last season that sometimes his versatility can be a curse as he is tasked with playing in defence, a position that he doesn’t enjoy playing in as much as midfield, despite his fine form there.
“Versatility can be a positive or a negative, it depends on your outlook,” Maitland-Niles told the Metro in March.
Get the latest Arsenal transfer news straight to your inbox
The summer window is officially open, and it’s going to be tough to keep up with the comings and goings in and out of the Emirates.
By signing up to our newsletter here, you’ll be kept up to date on the latest news and rumours as they break, all in one place. You’ll also receive exclusive insight and articles from club writers Chris Wheatley and Kaya Kaynak, all for free.
We also want to hear from you. Create an account here in just a few moments, so you can have your say on all things Arsenal, join the debate and take part in exclusive Q&As as well.
“Sometimes you’re stuck in the position where you’re waiting for a chance and you can play anywhere because of your versatility.
“Sometimes you become a main player straight away and it doesn’t affect you. But sometimes you can be caught out by it.
“I want to play in the centre of the pitch because I feel comfortable there and there’s a lot of things I can bring by playing in the middle.”