Right Option at Right Back: Maitland-Niles the Man for the Job
The small issue of defending has been one that has plagued Arsenal for many seasons now. In his first season at the club, Unai Emery has found it perhaps the biggest problem facing him, one exacerbated further by key absentees in Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries. It is Bellerin’s injury, however, that has proved most disruptive to the side, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles most regularly forced to play out of position in the absence of the Spaniard.
While a formidable centre-back partnership in Sokratis and Laurent Koscielny has ensured Holding’s absence has not proved completely fatal to Arsenal’s hopes of a successful season, no such back-up is as readily available at right-back. It was for this very reason, as cover for Bellerin, that Stephan Lichtsteiner arrived at the club on a free transfer.
Although the veteran Swiss defender immediately displayed an admirable attitude and a steeliness that appeared at first to be extremely appealing, it was only a matter of time before kicking people and shouting at officials began to lose its appeal. The pace of the Premier League appears to be too much for Lichtsteiner to handle at this stage of his career, especially under a manager that demands athleticism from his full-backs.
Twitter’s favourite villain Shkodran Mustafi was given the starting berth at Wembley against Tottenham, but cannot be considered as a serious option to see out the season at right-back. Offering nothing from an attacking perspective, and far too regularly nothing but mistakes in defence, Mustafi would be even more disruptive in an unfamiliar position, and should instead be left with the task of providing cover for the more solid options of Sokratis and Koscielny at centre-back.
That leaves Emery with two options. You could have been forgiven for forgetting Carl Jenkinson was still an Arsenal player ahead of the start of this campaign. A complete absence of real first-team opportunities at the club was followed by an underwhelming loan spell at Birmingham, and the arrival of Stephan Lichsteiner over the summer appeared to have relegated Jenkinson below his already lowly status in the squad.
He has faced perhaps unfair criticism during his time at the club; he is of course never going to be first-choice at the club, but any footballer playing at Premier League level deserves more respect towards their ability than Jenkinson has often received. Indeed, the fact he is an Arsenal fan at times has curiously been used against him, with suggestions that he is only still at the club due to his affiliation and therefore refusal to go elsewhere.
Emery during this season has quite happily dropped Mesut Ozil despite his £350,000-a-week salary, as well as benching stars such as Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Torreira at points. With this in mind, it is surely unlikely that the manager has kept Jenkinson at the club and has been willing to play him only because the player has an Arsenal duvet cover on his bed.
The prospect of Jenkinson, a man who has always given produced maximum effort for the club he loves, playing with heart and passion when required is an infinitely more appealing than watching Lichtsteiner resort to kicking anything that moves to cover his disturbingly apparent lack of mobility. This focus on Jenkinson’s commitment does a disservice to the quality of his performances on the pitch – impressive showings at Blackpool and when given opportunities in Europe have shown the Englishman is more than capable of filling in when necessary.
Before this turns into a glowing reference for Jenkinson to use as a cover letter for his next club, there is, of course, a far more obvious option at right back for the rest of the season in the form of Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Despite having gone through the age ranks at Arsenal as a midfielder, he appears to possess all the attributes Emery looks for in his full-backs – strong, quick, and able to effectively support the attack.
It is the latter of these qualities that enables him to stand out from the other options for the right-back position. Far too often this season, Arsenal’s attacking options have been limited to Iwobi sliding in Kolasinac to pull the ball back from the by-line. That is not to criticise that particular combination, which has proved successful many times, but simply having an option on the other wing can only be beneficial.
This was seen in the second leg against Rennes at the Emirates, when Maitland-Niles scored, had the fourth highest pass success rate for an Arsenal player, and made four tackles, more than any of his teammates. In a similarly impressive performance a few days earlier at home to Manchester United, Maitland-Niles shone, especially in the second half, against Pogba and Shaw, making four tackles which was second only to Aaron Ramsey’s seven.
The issue of cover at right-back is one that may have to be addressed in the summer, with Lichtsteiner likely to leave the club and serious discussions needing to be had over Maitland-Niles’ future position. However, until then, it is Maitland-Niles who should, and on current evidence will be given the responsibility of starting regularly. His relative inexperience may well lead to mistakes, and his apparent calmness can sometimes appear more like over-confidence, but he is the best fit Arsenal have in terms of a player who can fulfil the requirements demands from that position.
Lichtsteiner appears incapable of providing what Emery needs, Jenkinson has been used sparingly even in cup competitions, and Mustafi has proved problematic enough even in his preferred position. It is, therefore, Maitland-Niles who Emery will surely trust for the rest of the season, hoping he can regularly produce the type of performances seen in recent weeks. Should he manage this, Arsenal’s issues of sufficient cover at right-back could have a longer-term solution.