Arsenal: Ainsley Maitland-Niles doing that sneaky thing again

Ainsley Maitland-Niles completely blanketed Wilfried Zaha, and it’s looking like the Arsenal rightback is sneaking into some elite company.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles has not had an easy run of things at Arsenal. I know I always compare him to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, even though I’d rather not, but that’s because the similarities are glaringly obvious. Both had the same goal, both couldn’t reach that goal.

The difference is that the Ox didn’t take it as well as Maitland-Niles, who accepted the role he was given and made it his own. It hasn’t always been easy, and there have been times where we’ve really struggled with his defense, but after Crystal Palace, we were yet again treated to a show of how much he has improved since becoming a rightback.

So much so, that the conversation is kicking up again. Slowly but surely, very quietly, the “who’s the best rightback in the league?” question is taking on new additions.

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If you were to say that Arsenal had one of the best rightbacks in the league, with no other context or seasonal analysis, everyone would assume that you’re talking about Hector Bellerin.

That’s how it’s always been. Bellerin is incredibly talented, but he gets hurt too often to make the impact he wants to make. That’s how Maitland-Niles found his way into the role at all. Someone had to do it, so the versatile Maitland-Niles took the role and thrived in it. Is thriving in it.

He doesn’t get the kind of acclaim that most others will get, though. Maybe that’s because there’s a part of assessing him that always tends to remind us that he’s a fill-in. That’s all he was meant to be. But sneakily he’s taken being a fill-in and turned it around into being one of the best young rightbacks currently in the game.

That’s pretty special. To do something that massive with little to no acclaim.

Just look at what he did against Crystal Palace. Matched against the vaunted Wilfried Zaha, who carries a price tag above even Nicolas Pepe, Maitland-Niles completely shut him down. You know it was good because he’s getting all the praise in the world for not doing much attacking.

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Maitland-Niles is an attacking fullback, remember? His background as a winger dictates that. But against Palace, he did one thing incredibly well—he shut down Zaha with superior defending. And that’s just his latest example of sneaking up the rightback charts. Good luck taking this spot back, Bellerin.