Much like Radja Nainggolan in the winter of 2014, Ainsley Maitland-Niles practically went from the scarf photo to the pitch in a matter of hours. With Rick Karsdorp and Gianluca Mancini suspended for yesterday's heart-breaking loss to Juventus, José Mourinho had no choice but to throw Maitland-Niles into the deep end, giving his newest disciple a trial by fire against one of Roma's fiercest rivals.
While he had a relatively quiet evening at the Stadio Olimpico, for a kid making his first start in a new country and a new league, and indeed his first start since November, the 24-year-old utility man held his own against a difficult Juventus side.
Roma and Arsenal will likely sort out Maitland-Niles’ future at a later date, but in the meantime, we thought it might be interesting to reach out to our friends at The Short Fuse, our Arsenal site, to get some insight on what to expect from AMN over the next six months and possibly beyond.
Aaron Lerner, manager of The Short Fuse, was kind enough to give us his thoughts on Roma's newest Englishman. Give it a read and make sure to follow Aaron and The Short Fuse on Twitter.
Tell us a bit about Ainsley Maitland-Niles' development at Arsenal. He was an academy product but struggled to gain a foothold with the senior team. What made him such a promising prospect and why did he struggle to find first-team minutes?
The Short Fuse: You can hardly be more “one of our own” than Ainsley Maitland-Niles. He joined the Arsenal academy at age six and played at every single level. He made his professional debut for the club in the Champions League at 17 years old and was the second-youngest player to ever play for the club in the CL. I think that young start and homegrown feeling played a big role in why supporters wanted to see him succeed.
Three things made him an exciting prospect: his athleticism, his defensive abilities, and his positional flexibility. He’s pacey and uses that pace to cover a lot of ground—getting forward and tracking back. He’s a very good 1-v-1 defender and a strong tackler, he rarely gets beat on the dribble. And he can cover a number of positions —RB, RCB, RM, and CDM.
Utility players can be tough to truly assess, but did his jack of all trades approach limit his development at Arsenal? In other words, if he had a clearer role/position, do you think he would have been more valued by Arteta?
TSF: Lee Dixon (former Arsenal outside back now NBC color commentator) definitely thinks AMN’s flexibility has stymied his development. I tend to agree, but with a few caveats, and this will get a bit into your next question. I don’t think he is responsible enough on the ball to ever really have a starting role in a Mikel Arteta setup.
Tell us a few areas in which he excels and a few areas in which he struggles
TSF: To follow up on the previous answer—he’s not a good passer. He has a tendency to misplace what look like simple passes, and I can’t really remember him hitting any longer passes. I’m sure he’s done it, but not with any kind of regularity for me to remember. He also will sometimes lose the ball on the dribble, but that’s less of an issue—with his dribble success and the area he gains carrying the ball up the pitch, it’ll net out positive. He is a solid progressive dribbler and is not afraid to take an opponent on. He will definitely get forward and join the attack, but sometimes he’ll also end the attack with a terrible pass. And as I previously mentioned, he’s a strong defender with the ability to shut down his side of the field. He’s had spells where he was the starting right-back for a few matches running and during those clusters, he shut down some extremely talented and dangerous attackers
Should Roma and Arsenal fans read anything into the nature of the move? Is there any chance he’s still part of Arsenal’s plans for 2022 and beyond?
TSF: My understanding is that Roma really wanted to get the move done quickly to have AMN available for early January matches, so I wouldn’t read too much into the structure of the move. My guess is the option/obligation stuff might have dropped out simply as a way of getting the deal signed faster. I don’t think there is much of a chance he is at Arsenal long-term. He hasn’t had the best relationship with Mikel Arteta, although that may be as much the club’s fault as AMN’s. More than once there has been an issue where he and Arteta were not seeing eye-to-eye on what his role would be / Mikel may have promised him more playing time that never came. I will say that posting on Instagram “All I want to do is go where I’m wanted & where I’m going to play @Arsenal” probably wasn’t the best response when a reported move to Everton fell through in August, but it’s tough to fault a guy too much for venting his frustration. Add to that his contract is up after next season, and I’d expect Mikel Arteta & Edu to look to move him in the summer.
Finally, if everything goes according to plan, what kind of player can Maitland-Niles become?
TSF: I guess it depends on what that plan is. I generally think that players are more or less who they are going to be by the time they are 24. That’s not to say that players won’t develop and hone their skills, but I’m not exactly holding my breath that a guy like AMN who really struggles passing the ball is going to suddenly become Mesut Ozil in his mid-20’s. But can he improve his passing? Sure. That’s the biggest thing for Maitland-Niles, and if he becomes an average passer, he’ll be a quite useful player.
Without question, I think his best, most productive future is at right-back. His tackling and speed are a perfect fit, especially in a setup that doesn’t rely quite as much on the outside backs to provide meaningful service into the box. And even if his passing stays subpar, he could carve out roles and a career as a shutdown defender.
Big thanks once again to Aaron for his insight on Roma's newest player. I suspect that he's correct, that the dry loan was more a measure of expediency than anything, so if AMN can hit the ground running, he can fill a vital role for Roma for the foreseeable future as their resident utility man. That won’t garner many headlines, but players like that are worth their weight in gold when the going gets tough.