Ainsley Maitland-Niles has stated that he would like to be a winger moving forward. He is now on trial for the remainder of the season as he tries to prove that Arsenal need not invest in the winger position this summer.
The problem with being versatile is that you never really get to own a position. Phil Neville was never valued at Manchester United as much as he should have been. The same could be said about Owen Hargreaves with England. And Ainsley Maitland-Niles is beginning to figure that out Arsenal too.
In the four years since his debut at 17, Maitland-Niles has played left-back, right-back, left wing-back, right wing-back, central midfield and right wing. And he has played all of them on more than one occasion and in big games. It was only two weeks ago that he was scoring at Anfield.
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But now, at 21, Maitland-Niles has reached a point where he must specialise. He could still be an invaluable squad player if he continues as versatile depth, but if he ever wants to fulfil his talent, then he needs to find a position that he can master. And speaking to Sky Sports this week, it seems as though he has one in mind:
“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.”
It is not the first position that I would have thought of when predicting possible long-term roles for his career. But he obviously feels comfortable playing on the wing and believes that he can forge a part for himself. And as he admitted himself, he still has plenty of time to learn:
“I don’t feel like I’m there. I’m still young and I have a lot of learning to do. Even if I was playing week in, week out I wouldn’t say I was there because the learning stage I am at now, I still have so much more to give to the game.”
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The problem, however, is that that time could very abruptly be cut short. The wide positions are one of the biggest needs in the Arsenal squad. It would be expected that at least one wide attacker is brought to the club in the summer. And then there is the return of Reiss Nelson from his loan spell at Hoffenheim, another young talent who will be expecting to start regularly on the right flank.
While currently, it may look as though Maitland-Niles has a clear path to regular starts at the right-wing position, especially with Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the sidelines, if he wants to be considered a starting winger at 25, then he needs to win a starting position before the summer. He is on trial.
Unai Emery is continuing to build his squad. There are plenty of personnel decisions that he must make over the coming months and years. What he does with Maitland-Niles will be one of the more interesting ones. But, for now, it is up to Maitland-Niles to prove to Emery that he is indispensable.