At just 20-years old Ainsley Maitland-Niles is pushing to make himself a staple of Arsenal’s starting XI. Where he fits in, is up for debate. In league action Arsene Wenger has used the England national across the pitch: subbing him in five times, starting him in the midfield once, and three times as the squad’s left-back. With Wenger clearly preferring to use Maitland-Niles as the left wing-back in a back three, the question becomes what happens to Sead Kolasinac?
Ainsley Maitland-Niles Compared to Sead Kolasinac
In his three starts at left-back Maitland-Niles has shown flashes of brilliance. Against Newcastle he was a force on the flank winning five of ten duels, adding three clearances, two interceptions, and a tackle. But it was going forward where he shone: four successful dribbles (100 per cent), four accurate long-passes (66 per cent) and an 87 per cent pass accuracy.
It’s an area where Maitland-Niles offers an improvement to the side.
Kolasinac’s 79 per cent pass accuracy is a far cry from the 87 per cent Maitland-Niles is averaging. He also completes fewer forward passes per 90, and fewer successful passes per 90. With that said, Kolasinac has proven to be more dangerous from the wing, creating .95 chances per 90, a step up on Maitland-Niles .64. The Bosnia and Herzegovina national also owns a slight edge in key passes per 90.
In part, this can be explained by a lack of crosses. In his three games at left-back, Maitland-Niles has been credited with four accurate crosses, from nine attempts; all of which came in the game against West Ham.
With the ball at his feet, Maitland-Niles is a significant improvement on Kolasinac. He averages nearly two successful takes on per 90, compared to Kolasinac’s .38.
When it comes to defending, both players are remarkably similar.
Maitland-Niles hold a slight edge in interceptions per 90; 1.27 compared to 1.01. He dominates in terms of clearances per 90 3.81 over 2.15, but falls drastically short in the air. Kolasinac wins 64 per cent of his aerial duels, compared to Maitland-Niles 37 per cent. In terms of tackles won per 90 Kolasinac holds a slight edge 1.45 to 1.27.
Maitland-Niles has not replaced Sead Kolasinac
Following that barrage of numbers, the question becomes should Maitland-Niles take the starting spot from Sead Kolasinac? Maitland-Niles undoubtedly offers more going forward, an in limited minutes has proven himself to be at least capable defensively. Ultimately his downfall comes in the air, and his physicality.
Arsenal’s backline famously lacks bite. It lacks the tenacity that a player like Sead Kolasinac brings. It’s not just his aerial presence, but the ferocity with which he launches himself into tackles. It’s reminiscent of another player who has been shifted out of the squad: Francis Coquelin.
It’s in that comparison that lays the problem. Arsenal needs a physical force. They need a player who can bring an aggression to the side, but too often that comes at the cost of passing ability (as has been seen with Coquelin, and Kolasinac). Granit Xhaka was supposed to be the solution, but that has not panned out. With that in mind, the team is forced to choose between a physical force or a player who helps them moving forward.
Maitland-Niles may not be better, but he’s the better option
Arsenal should choose the player that offers them the most in attack. As long as Wenger mans the bench the Gunners are a team with a free-flowing attack and relatively little defensive strength. It’s not simply a matter of player selection; it’s a lack of defensive tactics. Under Wenger Arsenal are a team that wins by outscoring it’s defensive woes, and should fully commit to that in their selection of players. Simply put, Maitland-Niles offers Arsenal the best chance to get the ball from the defensive third to the players who will make the most difference.
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