By the time you read this column, England may have already played their second game of Euro 2020, against Scotland. But in their first game, last Sunday against Croatia, England started a right-footed defender at left back. Gareth Southgate opted to use Kieran Trippier over Luke Shaw and Ben Chillwell. While the merits of the choice are very much up for debate, kit shows that Southgate is unconvinced by his choices in the full back position, especially as they relate to England’s non-Harry Maguire centre backs. At right back this is less of an issue through the sheer quality of his choices—two league winners in Kyle Walker and Trippier and a Champions League winner in Reece James—but it makes left back an open starting position.
One player who will not be playing at either left back or right back in this summer’s tournament is Ainsley Maitland-Niles. While that is not at all surprising in June 2021, Maitland-Niles started the 2020-21 season not only starting for Arsenal, but in the first England squad of the season—as a wingback. Maitland-Niles replaced Trent Alexander-Arnold in his international debut, against Denmark, and then started at left wing-back in a back five in the return fixture against Denmark, before being replaced by Tyrone Mings after Harry Maguire had been sent off.
All of which is to say, Maitland-Niles was part of three different England squads in the autumn of 2020, playing competitive matches ahead of the major international tournament. And yet, as Maitland-Niles’ playing time Arsenal began to dwindle, and thus he went out on loan. Maitland-Niles, though, wanted to play in central midfield, and thus went to West Bromwich Albion. He hasn’t returned to the England squad since.
This is relevant because of Maitland-Niles’ own understanding of the situation. “I was gutted when I didn’t get picked. That was the whole reason for me going out on loan.” While Maitland-Niles objectively wasn’t playing as much, he also wanted to play central midfield—having made the England team as a full back. Indeed, he could’ve gone to Southampton on loan, who were hoping to sign Maitland-Niles to play fullback, but Sam Allardyce guaranteed midfield playing time, and playing in midfield was never going to be the route for Maitland-Niles to get into the England team.
This is a shame. Maitland-Niles is a good fullback. With Arsenal seemingly looking to move on from Héctor Bellerín, Maitland-Niles would have a chance to start, should he be willing to stay and willing to play right back. Indeed, he may be more suited to Mikel Arteta’s desire for the position, given his midfield upbringing. When Arteta first took over, it was Maitland-Niles who played at right back—Bellerín was injured—and he would often tuck into central positions, much as Calum Chambers did at the end of the season. This is something Arteta tried to do with Bellerín to less success, as Bellerín isn’t a natural central player, unlike Chambers and Maitland-Niles.
It would also solve a potential home grown issue for Arsenal. In a summer where there are a lot of required changes, Arsenal aren’t going to be able to do everything they have to. Maitland-Niles staying, and playing at right back, would be an easy solution. It has been mutually beneficial before, and Maitland-Niles is an England capped player because of it. But things that are mutually beneficial to both parties don’t always work out because someone wants more—sometimes to everyone’s regret, a few years down the line.