Ainsley Maitland-Niles has built up a close friendship with Hector Bellerin whilst progressing through the ranks at the Arsenal academy, but, in an unexpected turn of events, the pair could soon find themselves as rivals for the right-back position in the first-team.
Bellerin is firmly established as Arsenal’s first-choice option in that area of the field, while Maitland-Niles has spent the vast majority of his career to date either as a winger or a central midfielder.
Of late, though, with Mathieu Debuchy and Carl Jenkinson still working their way back from injury, Arsene Wenger has decided to use Maitland-Niles at right-back in first-team training sessions, despite his very limited experience in that position.
The 19-year-old, who is renowned for his ability to burst forwards and play neat passes, has played just two games at right-back for Arsenal U23s (one of which was two seasons ago) and he didn’t look especially comfortable on either occasion.
However, when given an opportunity to impress in that position for the first-team away to Nottingham Forest in the EFL Cup in midweek, Maitland-Niles thrived.
The England youth international was one of Arsenal’s most impressive performers as he won several aerial duels, kept the ball well and also provided an attacking threat. In truth he wasn’t posed too many problems by Forest, but he coped with the task impressively.
What will be interesting to see is whether this is a one-game experiment or a longer-term plan. Arsenal, of course, have frequently elected to change the positions of young players- Bellerin himself was previously a winger, as was Kieran Gibbs, and Maitland-Niles could well be the next in line to make the transition into becoming a full-back.
Last season was a significant leaning curve for Maitland-Niles as he commenced his loan spell at Ipswich in impressive fashion but was barely being used by the end of the campaign.
Now back at Arsenal, he has made an impressive start to the season at youth level, which was built upon with his display against Forest.
Maitland-Niles will hope to start at right-back against Reading in the next round, even though Debuchy may well be back available again. It is the possibility of a duel with his friend Bellerin, though, that is most intriguing.