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Ainsley Maitland-Niles vents frustration on Instagram

It’s going great at London Colney, let me tell you.

West Bromwich Albion v Arsenal - Carabao Cup Second Round Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

Ainsley Maitland-Niles has publicly voiced his displeasure and frustration with Arsenal on his Instagram story. The immediate backdrop for his post was that Everton had reportedly offered to take him on loan with an option to buy, but that Arsenal wasn’t keen on the move. Since then, Maitland-Niles spoke with the Arsenal hierarchy and has been told that, as things stand, the plan is for him to remain at Arsenal this season.

The Ainsley Maitland-Niles saga stretches well beyond today’s events. He came up through Hale End and showed tremendous promise under Arsene Wenger. He was brilliant in the FA Cup run and during Project Restart in Summer 2020 (with Mikel Arteta at the helm, I’d add). Wolves reportedly bid £15M for him last fall, but their offer was turned down because he supposedly was going to play a part at the Emirates. He then barely played the first half of the season and spent the second half on loan at West Bromwich Albion.

Throughout all that, there was an undercurrent of “he doesn’t want to play RB for Arsenal, he only wants to play midfield” coloring the discussion. That has been refuted. Maitland-Niles first did so himself in an interview last summer.

I would play right-back every week if I had to. I am not really fussed. The main thing is being out there with the team and helping them win games. That’s where some people may have misjudged what I said before. They misinterpreted what I said.

I didn’t mean I don’t want to play there because I would be happy to fill in and slot in and do the job anytime, anyplace. Obviously I do prefer playing central midfield but that is not to say I don’t want to play right-back or that I’m not going to do the job there if the manager asks me to.

If the manager says to me ‘Ains you gotta go in goal this game I will put the gloves on and I am ready to rock n roll’.

Earlier today, David Ornstein wrote that Maitland-Niles has said he’d like to play fullback this year and hasn’t asked Mikel Arteta to play him in midfield this season.

If you want to split hairs on both of those, it seems to me that Maitland-Niles has definitely, at some point, told Arsenal that he’d like to play midfield. His quote from last summer reads like somebody softening a position and backing off what they said earlier. “Oh yeah, I want to play midfield, but I never meant I’d only play midfield” and “I haven’t asked to play midfield this season.”

For what it’s worth in the interview from last summer, Maitland-Niles admitted that he had showed up to practice late “maybe once during this manager’s time” but that he’d owned his mistake and accepted the consequences. We all know how Mikel Arteta loves his rules and discipline.

Looking at the big picture, there is plenty of blame to go around. Maitland-Niles might have done better to handle things privately — that certainly would have been a more professional way to do it. But at the same time, he’s young (24), has been jerked around by the club, and for all we know has already tried to address it behind closed doors. I don’t begrudge him his feelings — they’re completely justified.

Much more of my ire rests with the adults in the room — Mikel Arteta and the club. For starters, they’ve got to do everything in their power to prevent relationships and man-management situations from boiling over like this. To be fair, maybe they have done that.

But given that this isn’t the first manager/club-player relationship that has gone poorly under Mikel Arteta (Guendouzi, Ozil, Sokratis, Kolasinac, Bellerin(?), Aubameyang(?), Saliba(?) and so on), I’m inclined to think that maybe they’re doing something wrong that goes beyond any particular player. There certainly seem to be a lot of guys who would be happy to ply their trade elsewhere (Xhaka, Leno).

N.B.: all of this is from the outside looking in without full information.

It seems like Mikel Arteta’s biggest problem, in man-management, tactically, and as a manager generally, is his inflexibility. He’s wedded to a disciplinarian, my-way-or-the-highway approach with all his players. He might be better served, especially with younger guys, to put an arm around them and be a bit more understanding and lenient. You can be a hard-ass with veterans who should know better. You need to know when to use the carrot and when the stick. With Mikel, it feels like he only ever reaches for the stick.

The Ainsley Maitland-Niles situation is a perfect example of Mikel’s tactical inflexibility. As I wrote on Twitter, I’m assuming that AMN isn’t starting at right back because of his passing. His passing is bad; he is a liability on the ball. There are no two ways about that. Calum Chambers and Cedric are (or at least Arteta rates them as) better passers. That said, Ainsley Maitland-Niles is as good as or better than them in pretty much every other category.

Why not at least give him a shot at right back? He can’t be worse than the recent performances we’ve seen from a rotating cast of characters (including backup left back Nuno Tavares) at the position. But for whatever reason — in this assumption because he doesn’t pass well enough — he’s not getting that chance. He doesn’t fit into a rigid mold and inflexible system.

A more experienced and flexible manager would adjust his tactics to highlight the strengths and hide the weaknesses of what might be his best option at a particular position. He’d find a way to get the most out of what he has on the roster and get his better players onto the field (again, we are assuming that AMN is a “better” option at RB that what we’ve seen, which isn’t a stretch). Mikel Arteta seems woefully incapable of doing that — remember how long he kept playing Willian? He sticks to his guns far too long.

But I digress. I could write thousands of words on Mikel Arteta’s shortcomings as a manager. And I probably will at some point during the break. Back to Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

That it has come to him posting on social media about how unhappy he is at the club makes me sad. He’s an academy product, and I want good things for him and Arsenal. I’m holding out hope that there is a way back, a way to resolve this situation positively.

I think that involves in some order, not necessarily this one: him apologizing for commenting publicly, Mikel Arteta putting that proverbial arm around him and wanting to mend fences, and for AMN to at least be given a shot to claim the starting RB spot. I don’t see any of those as particularly likely to happen. I hope I’m wrong.