Ainsley Maitland-Niles is an Arsenal academy product having joined the club as a 6-year-old. He broke into the U-21 side of Arsenal as a 16-year-old and signed his first professional contract with the club in 2014. Maitland-Niles is a central midfielder by trade, but we have seen him excel in various other positions over the years. The likes of Wolves, Barcelona and Manchester United wanted the Englishman in the summer transfer window. Still, they ended their pursuit as the Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta blocked all the moves. Maitland-Niles has become an important player for Arsenal in the last few years, especially under Arteta. The Arsenal manager has been able to install a lot of confidence in him and has brought it out. Maitland-Niles has become known for his versatility all around the world.
This scout report will provide a tactical analysis on Maitland-Niles’; overall gameplay individually, and it will also provide you an analysis of how he may fit into the different systems and tactics that Arteta uses.
We’ll start by analysing his heat map…
Since the start of the 2019/20 season, as you can see in the above heat map, Maitland-Niles has mainly featured as a right-back, right wing-back and left wing-back. The heat map shows us his fantastic work rate and his ability to go up and down the pitch quickly. It also shows us
his heavy involvement on the right flank near the opposition box, which is from the time Arsenal played a back four under Unai Emery and Arteta. But when Arteta switched to a back three or a back five, his average positioning became more in the middle third or final third of the pitch as he was moved into a more advanced role which is as a right/left wing- back. He is a genuine attacking threat but also doesn’t shy away from doing his defensive work either. He likes to make overlapping runs, but since he has played in a central midfield role, Arteta has given him the license to drift infield and make under-lapping runs which can be seen in his heat map.
Having played in various positions at both youth and senior level, Maitland-Niles has developed a more in-depth understanding of the defensive side of the game too. Thus, he doesn’t shy away from his defensive duties either. He is not afraid of challenges, as he has gained the reputation for being a tough-tackling player in his youth because of his unapologetic nature.
In the above picture, James Milner had possession of the ball. Due to clever positioning by Maitland-Niles to shut down his passing options, he played a weak back pass which didn’t reach his goalkeeper. A burst of pace from Maitland-Niles allows him to knock the ball around the keeper and it almost goes out for a goal-kick. Mesut Ozil runs forward to grab on to the loose ball and squares it back to Maitland-Niles, who finishes it into an empty net.
The 23-year-old Englishman possesses an abundance of pace and stamina and can play at a very high intensity throughout the match. He also can stop counter-attacks by using his excellent recovery pace to get back and win the ball back. His pace over the first yards allows him to catch an opponent quickly, and we see that in the images below.
As Divock Origi collected and tried to run at Shkodran Mustafi, Maitland Niles shows his willingness to get back and uses his recovery pace to stop Origi’s run down the left flank.
Newcastle United brought on Allan Saint-Maximin as a substitute in the 67th minute. In the above instance, Maitland-Niles left too much gap between him and Calum Chambers. Thus, the opposing midfielder played the ball into that gap to Saint-Maximin. Maitland-Niles
recovers well by using his pace and gets back to tackle him and win possession of the ball.
Once again in the 89th minute, Saint-Maximin breaks forward on a counter-attack. He does well down the left flank, but Maitland-Niles manages to get back to him just in time and uses his body to get in front of Saint-Maximin to get the ball. This shows the outrageous amount of energy he possesses that he could catch a speedy player like Saint-Maximin twice within four minutes.
In the above image, Naby Keita wins possession of the ball after a midfield battle with Joe Willock and looks to play a pass back to his keeper. Keita takes too much time, and Maitland-Niles uses his pace to get in front of Keita to win possession. He works well on the left flank but takes a touch too long, and the ball goes out for a goal-kick.
Attacking play in middle and final third
In the previous season, Maitland-Niles contributed to only 3 goals. He got his chances to play when Hector Bellerin was injured. However, he was forced to play out of position in the absence of Bellerin. Maitland-Niles was eerily consistent in his 15 starts in the Premier League. He is very proactive in the attacking plays, as the Englishman likes to constantly make overlapping and under-lapping runs for his teammates. A central midfielder by trade, you’ll also see him in the middle of the park creating a midfield overload or providing a passing option. We will now analyse his attacking play, which will show that he is more than keen to aid his teammates.
The above is an example of an off the ball movement that Maitland-Niles often makes as a left wing-back. The move started off with Kieran Tierney playing a pass to the feet of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Meanwhile, Maitland-Niles makes a run inwards from the touchline.
Aubameyang plays a first-time pass to Nicolas Pepe, and Maitland-Niles continues his run in the half-space between the opposition right wing-back and right centre-back. The Englishman breezes past the opposing defender as Pepe releases him through into the open space. This movement by Maitland-Niles aided Arsenal to open up the half-spaces and allowed others to stage multiple movements.
As you can see in the above image, Maitland-Niles plays a pass to Henrikh Mkhitaryan and makes an under-lapping run. It surprised Jonjo Shelvey, as he was certain that Maitland-Niles would make an overlapping run.
Maitland-Niles then moves into the half-space to receive a first-time pass from Mkhitaryan. He delays for a bit to attract opposing midfielder to free up Willock and plays a pass to him. He implemented the combination with speed and precision, and he could link-up play with others and draw defenders. Due to his central movement, Arsenal could successfully create an attack.
In the above situation, Granit Xhaka has possession of the ball. Looking for a passing option, he sees Maitland-Niles drifting into the centre to open up space for Tierney to receive the ball from Xhaka. Instead, Xhaka plays the ball to Maitland-Niles through the press by Liverpool. Maitland-Niles makes a perfect half-turn confidently and plays the ball into the path of Aubameyang who is 1 v 1 with Neco Williams meanwhile Tierney makes an overlapping run from behind to overload the left channel.
Maitland-Niles set up a perfect counter-attack for Arsenal, which shows that he is tactically astute as he moved into the half-space where there was no opposing player present.
The above image is an example of Maitland-Niles showing his speed and energy to create space for his teammates.
As you can see here, Aubameyang is in possession after he received a cross-field pass from Bukayo Saka. At the same time, Tierney makes an overlap behind his back as Aubameyang cuts inside. Aubameyang sees Maitland-Niles making a run in between opposition defenders. The run from Maitland Niles attracts Georginio Wijnaldum with him and forces Williams to delay his tackle in case a through ball is played to his right side to Tierney. Aubameyang delays Williams for a bit as he takes a longer touch and arrows a finish into the bottom-right corner.
This intelligent and sneaky run made by Maitland-Niles was to exploit the space between the opposing defenders, which opened them up intuitively. Arsenal was rewarded because of his run to disrupt the opposition defence and pro-activeness to get involved in the attacking play.
As we all know, Maitland-Niles started his career as a right-winger who liked to take on opponents in 1 v 1 battles to create chances and provide a viable attacking threat for his team to benefit from. He is a very direct player and likes to use rapid changes of pace to get past opponents. We will now have a look at how he has made the most of his abilities to create chances for Arsenal from a range of different positions.
Paul Dummett plays the ball to Jetro Willems, who is standing on the left flank near the touchline. Maitland-Niles read the pass out from the back and noticed that Willems would wait for the ball to come to his feet. He uses his explosive pace and makes an interception by nicking it away from Willems.
Due to his abundance in pace and his intelligence, he was able to quickly cover up the ground and gain possession for his team.
Willems could not react quickly enough, so Maitland-Niles was able to break forward with pace and left him behind. Maitland-Niles picks Aubameyang with a lovely chipped ball in the box. Aubameyang controls it and dinks the ball over the opposition goalkeeper and into the back of the net.
Even after such a lengthy run from his own half, Maitland-Niles generated the perfect amount of power to put an accurate ball in front of Aubameyang. We could also notice how quickly Maitland-Niles was able to hit the top gear, which can be advantageous in any area of play.
Tierney works the ball well on the left flank. As you can see in the above picture, he cuts the pass back to Maitland-Niles in the box which has positioned himself in between Williams and Joe Gomez. Maitland-Niles decides not to shoot and squares the ball to Eddie Nketiah, who could not find Saka on the turn. Thus, a good chance was wasted by the Gunners.
Maitland-Niles used his pace well to break forward and get ahead of the opposition’s midfielders. His excellent positioning allowed him to receive the ball comfortably from Tierney and square it to Nketiah, who had a better chance to create or score.
The move started off with Tierney playing a long ball over the Chelsea high line. Maitland-Niles used his explosive pace to get in behind by overlapping Aubameyang. He manages to control the ball near the byline after a tussle with Cesar Azpilicueta. He cuts back and gets on his right foot and takes an extra touch, then whips a dangerous cross into the box, which Aubameyang headed inches wide of the near post.
It was an excellent chance created by Maitland-Niles in the early stages of the match. He remained calm and showed such a rare composure by not losing the ball. The England international delayed his delivery to allow Aubameyang to get into the perfect position.
The above picture was of the instance when Maitland-Niles made the most of his excellent dribbling ability to create a chance for his team. The move started off with Willock playing a pass onto his feet. As soon as he receives the ball, he sees the enormous amount of space on the right flank because of Newcastle United’s compact defensive structure. He breaks forward, taking on Shelvey and leaves him behind.
Maitland-Niles takes a long touch to beat Dummett with his pace. As Dummett commits, he slides to stop Maitland Niles from making a first-time cross. But Maitland-Niles cuts onto his left foot and leaves Dummett on the ground. He drills a low cross into the box and finds Aubameyang at the near post. The former Borussia Dortmund striker tries to flick into the back of the net, but the opposing defender manages to clear the danger.
The apparent calmness of Maitland-Niles sometimes looks more like over-confidence. As you can see in the above picture, Chambers plays a simple pass to Maitland-Niles. Maitland-Niles tries to trap and instead tucks it away with his toe. Some argue that it extends his composed persona. But his overconfidence in his abilities has hurt him in the past. The solution to this would be for him to be more proactive and less complacent. He can be a world-beater if he could be more cautious beside his wayward positioning.
In the 2019/20 season, he mostly played as a right full-back, and he won only 46% of his aerial duels, with attempting only 45 in 33 matches. While in the current season, he has been deployed as a left and right wing-back and in the central midfield. In 6 matches, he has won only 1 out of 4 attempted aerial duels, winning only 25%. Hence, it’s clear that Maitland Niles doesn’t win enough aerial duels, and he needs to work on it if he wants to play in his preferred position, which is as a midfielder, at Arsenal.
After assessing Maitland-Niles’ overall profile, which includes his strengths and weaknesses, it has been understood how important he would go forward. He is a player who can slot in across several positions across the pitch is of a huge significance, possessing the calmness and awareness of a 30-year-old but the athleticism of a 20-year-old. The perfect example of this right now is Milner. Maitland-Niles could be our very own Milner as versatility plays a vital role in football nowadays. He can be considered as a “Jack of all trades, master of none” right now. Maitland-Niles might become a victim of his versatility. A role which suits his strengths more than his weaknesses is as a box to box midfielder. Let’s hope he gets the opportunity to prove himself in that role.