Had Arsenal achieved the success they were looking for last year, it would have been all the more remarkable having played a player out of position in the second half of the season.
And they very nearly did so after being forced to deploy Ainsley Maitland-Niles at right-back following a season-ending injury to Hector Bellerin and Stephan Lichtsteiner finding the Premier League a struggle with his unaccustomed 34-year-old legs.
Primarily a midfielder, the youngster’s Gunners career has been predominantly been spent in defence – while his chances at playing in right-midfield have come in more of a wing-back position which Unai Emery mainly opted for in the Europa League (where the 21-year-old posted a higher goal involvement rate than in the Premier League).
Arsenal may need to look for in-house solutions to sort out squad issues this summer with funds being restricted over the transfer period. There will be a need to fill the midfield with more options following the departure of Aaron Ramsey and the growing ineffectiveness of Mesut Ozil – while the club’s current dearth of wide players by trade means Maitland-Niles’ desire for a future higher up the park may well be granted by Emery next season.
And with Lichtsteiner bringing an uneventful Gunners career to a close, Arsenal will surely be in the market for a right-back that would be the direct competition for Bellerin – who is set to miss the start of the campaign with the injury that ended his season early in January.
With Arsenal rumoured to be interested in PSG’s Thomas Meunier, plans to recruit a full-back are clearly in the works. So logic would suggest that Maitland-Niles may finally get his chance in a more advanced role, with resources likely to be spent in other positions – with defenders on The Gunners’ current wish list and a backup goalkeeper required after David Ospina’s departure earlier this week.
It is time Maitland-Niles established himself as a footballer after a couple of years playing out of position. His calmness on the ball is an astute quality of his, while his dribbling qualities will allow him to become a decent link between defence and attack.
While his stint out wide has exposed his flaws of an impotent crossing ability – further hampered by delaying his final ball too long, allowing strong defenders to muscle in and dispossess him – Maitland-Niles’ positive traits suggest a future in central midfield could be more productive.
With current midfielders Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi all fairly more of the defensive mould, Maitland-Niles can provide an alternative to freshen up the midfield without Emery having to delve into his shallow pockets.
And having spent so long in more defensively orientated positions, taking the pressure off the sure-starters Xhaka and Torreira once injuries bite and rotation becomes essential will make Maitland-Niles a valuable asset for Emery next season – especially with yet another arduous Europa League campaign ahead for The Gunners.
Arsenal run the risk of otherwise giving the player a dead end at what is a turning point in his career, and a player of such promise would be a massive waste if the club cannot find a way to utilise his talent.
By hauling Freddie Ljungberg into the first-team picture, that may seem less likely, but Maitland-Niles’ future seems out of his hands at this stage, with the onus on his club to play him in his preferred position to help the team as much as the player himself.