Ainsley Maitland-Niles could be on his way out at Arsenal as part of Mikel Arteta’s “ruthless” summer transfer window overhaul of the roster. The Hale End product, now 23, has struggled to find a permanent spot in North London and spent the second half of the season on loan at West Brom. He’s been mentioned in connection with a handful of Premier League teams, with Crystal Palace seemingly the frontrunners.
Maitland-Niles recently gave an interview where, above all, he reiterated that he wants some “clarity” from Mikel Arteta and Arsenal about whether and how he fits into the club next season. Said Maitland-Niles:
They can tell me whether they’ve got plans to play me in the future or if they want to sell me. I’ve heard they want to make some space and some money so I’m not sure.
My main priority is to go back, see what the manager has to say and take it from there. That’s always the first step and there’s many other steps after that so who knows?
That all sounds fine to me. Footballers want to play. But there’s another quote floating around, something along the lines of, “if [I don’t fit into the plans]...it may be time to kiss Arsenal goodbye.” The wording strikes me as a bit extra and standoffish, but I don’t necessarily begrudge him the sentiment. Again, I can’t really fault a player for wanting to play or be sold to someplace where he’s going to play more.
That said, I’m not sure that Mr. Good Ship Discipline, Get on Board or Get Out Mikel Arteta will see the comments the same way. Maitland-Niles has his manager’s office number and probably his personal cell as well. If he wants to have a conversation about his future, he knows how reach Arteta privately. There’s a reason he’s decided to communicate through the media — he wants to force action.
It’s been a strange season for Maitland-Niles. He received his first call up to the national team in August on the strength of his RB / RWB performances during Project Restart and in Arsenal’s FA Cup winning run. But he was unable to lock down the spot amid rumors, which he later denied, that he’d informed Mikel Arteta and Arsenal that he wanted to play one of the central midfield roles as opposed to a right-sided, defensive one.
Arsenal rejeceted a £15M bid from Wolves reportedly because the Gunners had set a valuation north of £20M. Looking back, the club might regret that decision because they probably won’t get £15M for him this window. And his recent public comments definitely aren’t increasing his sale price.
It feels like there is either more going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about (read: he’s a bit of a headcase) or that Arsenal straight up blew it last fall, or both. It makes no sense to not sell a guy you’re basically not going to use all season. Remember, he barely played all fall and was loaned out in the January window. Now, he’s got two years left on his contract, and we know Arsenal are trying to avoid allowing players to get to the final year of their contract without either an extension or selling for value. So something has to give.
His age, versatility, and homegrown status make him an attractive player, both for Arsenal if the club can sort things out, or for any lower half of the mid-table team. I think he could be Arsenal’s starting right back if he were more willing to play there. He’d have to improve his passing to excel in Mikel Arteta’s system, but he’s a well-above average dribbler. He has already shown the defensive tools, in particular pressing, intercepting, and marking, the pace, and the range to play the position. And again, he earned an England call-up for a strong run of form as a right back!
Despite all the talent England have at right back, I think that’s his best shot of getting back into the national team picture without dramatically improving his passing because right now, he barely passes well enough to play RB. And by 23, most players are pretty much who they are going to be. There’s always a chance he pulls a Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills quarterback) and makes a huge, statistically improbable leap, but that’s very much the exception, not the rule.
Maybe he thinks that with Jordan Henderson getting older and being slowed by injuries, he’ll only have to beat out one of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips. But, uh, I don’t see that happening. Plus, Jude Bellingham has a good chance to end up better than all three of the guys already clearly ahead of Maitland-Niles.
Circling back to Arsenal, I get the sense that Ainsley Maitland-Niles, like Hector Bellerin and Granit Xhaka, has probably played his last game for the club. Hopefully Edu can finagle a decent return that can be reinvested.