We’ve finally got a small bit of clarity on why Ainsley Maitland-Niles has been left out in the cold for the past month: he’s not training well. After the Gunners’ FA Cup win on Monday in which Maitland-Niles only made a cameo appearance in stoppage time, the Arsenal boss was asked about the England U23 man. Said Arteta:
Ainsley needs to put his head down, work hard and show me every day in training he wants it more than anybody else and that he wants to play for this club and fight for his place.
Maitland-Niles has said in that past that he is not a right back and doesn’t really want to play the position. But he’s primarily been used there this season and played right back for Mikel Arteta’s first five Premier League matches in charge. He seemed to be an important part of the tactical setup, tucking inside and stepping into the midfield to create numerical advantages for the Gunners. He lost his place for the Chelsea match in late January, has not played meaningful minutes since, and has mostly been left out of the matchday squads entirely.
Arteta’s message to Maitland-Niles is similar to the ones delivered to Dani Ceballos and Matteo Guendouzi: train well, fight for your place, show us you want to be here. It seems to have worked for those two; they’re regained their place and are playing well. It’s now on AMN to respond in kind.
It’s nice to have a clear, consistent message coming from the manager. Arteta wants to establish a meritocracy at Arsenal — if you train well, you’ve got a place and will play. Mangers are often accused of favoritism in their team selection, and it seems, early on, that Arteta is committed to avoiding that. It will be interesting to see if he does the same should a similar issue arrive with a more established, important, and/or veteran player.
Slightly random aside: I enjoyed this post-script from James Benge, writer for football.london, on the situation, “What have we learned from it? That if you nag an Arsenal reporter enough on here they’ll eventually ask the question you want? I guess so.” I guess good things can come out of Twitter.