At the start of last season Ainsley Maitland-Niles was just another schoolboy hoping to earn a scholarship deal at London Colney for the following campaign. Not only has he achieved that aim, but, despite the fact that he only turned 16 just over a month ago, the fleet-footed winger has also chalked off several further objectives in what has been a rather whirlwind year.
So far this season Maitland-Niles has made the joint-most appearances for Arsenal in the three main youth competitions, having established himself as a regular presence in the U21 squad. His rapid progression was rewarded today with his maiden call-up to train with the first-team squad and, given his development over the past twelve months, it may not be too long until he is beckoned over to the senior training pitch again.
Maitland-Niles’ first achievement of note came when he impressed for the U18s in a pre-season friendly against Chelsea in the summer of 2012, and, by February this year he was a regular fixture in the side for that age-group, scoring twice in eleven appearances before the season’s denouement.
His impressive form earned the youngster a surprise call-up to the bench for the NextGen Series Quarter-Final against CSKA Moscow at Emirates Stadium and, although he did not get on against the Russian side, he proceeded to feature against Chelsea and Sporting Lisbon later in the tournament.
This season he has started both games to date in Arsenal’s UEFA Youth League campaign, whilst also featuring in all four of the club’s U21 fixtures, starting twice. A confident and determined individual, Maitland-Niles will next be seeking to earn international recognition having had to pull out of an England U17 squad earlier this year due to his club commitments.
Skilful and adept at playing the right pass, the 16 year old can be mightily pleased with his achievements thus far, particularly given that he is the youngest player in his age group, but he will also be looking to develop more consistency in his game, something which will surely come as he becomes more mature both tactically and technically over the coming months and years.
With the 2009 and 2010 intakes still to produce an Arsenal first-team player between them, some positives can be taken from the fact that subsequent intakes have gone a long way towards addressing this issue, with Serge Gnabry (2011) and Gedion Zelalem (2013) being promoted to the first-team squad this season, whilst the likes of Maitland-Niles, Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill and Alex Iwobi are all being regularly monitored by Arsene Wenger and his coaching staff.
It would be nonsensical to expect each intake to produce a raft of players readily available for the first-team, but Arsenal’s performances in the Youth League so far, in addition to individual success stories such as those of Maitland-Niles and fellow first-year Stefan O’Connor, have gone some way towards easing concerns about the capabilities of the Academy.