Arsenal played probably their best football of the season in the 2-0 win over Chelsea. However, victory came at a heavy price this go-round, with Hector Bellerin rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), ending his season.
Certainly, this is painful news for the Gunners, who have also lost Rob Holding and Danny Welbeck to season-ending injuries. However, for one player, this misfortune may hold a golden opportunity; Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles Must Take His Chance
After making his debut under Arsene Wenger, Maitland-Niles hasn’t yet found a permanent position on the pitch. He’s played as a winger, wing-back, fullback and a central midfielder thus far in his young career.
This versatility is certainly helpful for his club but may have held the player back up to this point. He simply hasn’t had a consistent run of matches to build his form and earn a place in the starting eleven.
Even this season, Ainsley Maitland-Niles has mostly played in the cup competitions, just making the bench for the Premier League in most cases. Even the player himself seems confused about his best position, which probably doesn’t help his case for regular play time.
He told Sky Sports in an exclusive interview: “I’m a central midfielder but I can play in various positions”, just minutes before saying “I’d like to be a winger. I feel comfortable there and I’ve been playing there this season. I like to think of myself as a winger at 25-years-old, starting every week for Arsenal, scoring and assisting goals.”
Regardless of which position Maitland-Niles sees himself, Bellerin’s injury provides an opportunity. The Spaniard will miss at least the balance of this season, but may not return in time for the start of next.
That leaves a gaping hole on the right flank for Arsenal. They do have a few options to fill the space.
Stephan Lichtsteiner found great success in that position for Juventus for many seasons. However, the Swiss international simply does not have the endurance to play as a Premier League right-back week in and week out anymore.
Carl Jenkinson has earned minutes this season under Unai Emery. However, there is little doubt at this stage in the player’s career that he simply doesn’t have the talent to make it at a top-six club.
Finally, Shkodran Mustafi has played as a right-back for the Germany national team. The German has also found himself as a second-choice centre-back to both Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Laurent Koscielny, with good reason. However, Mustafi is very much error-prone as well as out of favour.
So, logic dictates that Ainsley Maitland-Niles should get the first crack as Bellerin’s replacement.
While Bellerin’s tragic injury has opened the door for a regular place, Unai Emery has kept an eye on Ainsley Maitland-Niles even before arriving in north London.
Soon after the Spaniard’s appointment, Ivan Gazidis told the media: “If we were speaking about one of our young players, if we targeted Ainsley Maitland-Niles for example, Unai knows Ainsley. He’s watched him, he’s familiar with his patterns of play, his capabilities, he’s very excited about his potential and was able to talk about how excited he was to work with Ainsley, to develop him as a player.”
It is clear that Emery has kept Maitland-Niles in his long-term plans at Arsenal. It is very unfortunate that the young man’s chance has come due to an injury. However, that is just the way modern football goes sometimes. It is down to the player to take advantage of this opportunity.