Arsenal: For Ainsley Maitland-Niles, the hard work starts now

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 11: Ainsley Maitland-Niles of Arsenal holds of Abdoulaye Doucoure of Watford during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Watford at Emirates Stadium on March 11, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 11: Ainsley Maitland-Niles of Arsenal holds of Abdoulaye Doucoure of Watford during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Watford at Emirates Stadium on March 11, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images) /
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Ainsley Maitland-Niles is on the peripheries of the Arsenal squad, flitting in and out of the starting line-up. For the young prospect, the hard work starts now.

The development of young players is a horribly unpredictable course. Those that show great potential and talent can often flounder when the pressure mounts; those that toil early on can suddenly surge into the limelight when the seniors come calling. Change is aplenty; predictions are futile; frustrations are great.

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Often times, the crucial moment in a player’s development is the step from youth to senior level, particularly in establishing themselves in the latter: Because of the often superior physical and athletic giftings of those more successful at the youth level, when they transfer to the senior level, that natural advantage is lost, and it can take some time to adapt.

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It is at this stage that Ainsley Maitland-Niles finds himself. While he has been well-known within the Arsenal circles for some time, it has only been this season that he has established in the first-team squad on a regular basis. Last season, for instance, he played just one Premier League minute. He has never made a Premier League start. Even while on-loan with Ipswich, he only made 21 Championship starts. This year, he is already at 653 minutes with six starts.

However, those starts have not come in a consistent and coherent manner. His most natural position, for example, is in central midfield. That is where he wants to entrench himself. But he is yet to play there in the Premier League for Arsenal. His latest start, for instance, the 3-0 win over Watford on Sunday afternoon, came at right back, with all his other starts coming at left back or left wing-back.

Maitland-Niles’ versatility is a wonderful trait to have. It shows a football acumen and intelligence that furthers his development, showing a great awareness and positional understanding no matter where he is positioned. But it could be detrimental to his development.

This is where the hard work starts: In establishing a starting role at the senior level. It would be fair to say that Maitland-Niles is a trusted squad member, a key component of the rotation throughout the season, a reliable reserve who can be called upon when injuries, suspensions, and fatigue hit. But he is yet to forge a fully-fledged role in the starting XI for himself. That is extremely challenging to do.

Maitland-Niles must now try and force his way into the team on a consistent basis. That may be instead of Sead Kolasinac or Nacho Monreal at left back. It may be in place of Hector Bellerin at right back, as was the case at the weekend, although injuries, not usurpation, was the reason. It may, however unlikely, be in the midfield, perhaps pushing his way ahead of Granit Xhaka.

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In whatever form, at whatever position, the time is now for Maitland-Niles to establish his starting position. Unfortunately, that is not easy. The hard work undeniably starts now.