He enjoyed a terrific first season as a scholar, impressing many with his direct runs down the right flank and establishing himself as an integral part of the U21 squad at the age of just 16.
This season, though, things have been rather different for Ainsley Maitland-Niles, with the Hale End product, more often than not, being deployed as a central-midfielder, a position which he played in on a couple of occasions last campaign.
The change in position certainly doesn’t seem to have had an adverse effect on his ability to torment opposing defenders. Maitland-Niles can frequently be seen playing neat through balls into the path of his team-mates, whilst his stunning long-range goal against Stoke City demonstrated that he remains capable of finding the net himself.
Arsene Wenger is fully aware of Maitland-Niles’ potential, having invited him to train with the first-team on several occasions, most recently on Saturday morning ahead of the trip to face Swansea City. Maitland-Niles came close to making the bench for the Capital One Cup game against Southampton earlier this season and it would be a surprise if he isn’t considered for selection in that competition next season.
Before then, the hard-working and determined youngster will continue to learn more about his new position. There have been some encouraging signs, particularly in Arsenal’s early UEFA Youth League games, that Maitland-Niles is capable of reaching new heights in central-midfield, with his driving runs and his ability to pick a pass.
There have, inevitably, been some teething problems, though. Occasionally, given that he is not naturally a defensive-minded player, Maitland-Niles can get caught out when tasked with stopping the progress of opponents and he needs to learn to time his challenges in a more efficient manner.
He certainly doesn’t seem suited to being an anchorman in midfield, but with a more natural defensive-midfielder alongside him, Glen Kamara for example, Maitland-Niles would have more licence to roam forwards, with Kamara being primarily focused on stopping opponents’ moves rather than initiating Arsenal’s attacks.
Somewhat surprisingly, Maitland-Niles’ most regular partner in the midfield pivot has been Gedion Zelalem, another player who is far better in an attacking sense than he is defensively. Neither Maitland-Niles or Zelalem are particularly effective at stopping the opposition in their tracks, and the pair struggled with their defensive work in the recent UEFA Youth League defeat at home to Anderlecht.
For Maitland-Niles, though, this is still a period of adjustment, and, for the most part, he has come through it well. There is an additional benefit to him being stationed in central-midfield, as it allows Alex Iwobi, a player who has been rather starved of game time at U21 level, to feature frequently for the second-string on the right flank.
Maitland-Niles possesses the technical qualities required to be an Arsenal player and it is hoped that playing in central-midfield will enable him to build up the tactical understanding that is required in order to further accelerate his development.
You can rarely accuse Maitland-Niles of going missing in games, such is his desire and commitment. The youngster has always been highly rated within the club, having featured in the NextGen Series, a competition for U19 players, when he was just 15.
Two seasons later and Maitland-Niles is again ahead of many of his contemporaries both in terms of his performance level and the regularity with which he is being summoned by Wenger for first-team training sessions. He has made significant progress in a very short time to get to this stage, but there is still some way to go for him to achieve his ultimate aim of breaking into the first-team squad.