Yes, the game was lost. Yes, we had injuries in that part of the pitch. Yes, we were allowed to make five substitutions. But the sight of Ainsley Maitland-Niles coming off the bench on Wednesday to get minutes in the centre of midfield – the first time that has happened in *checks notes* erm, not sure – appears to have marked a change in his relationship with Mikel Arteta.
In our five Premier League fixtures prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, the England under-21 international was included in the Spaniard’s squad just once. Having played the full 90 minutes in the previous eight games, albeit at right-back, it’s fair to speculate that off-field issues played a part in his being dropped.
The boss hinted as much after the FA Cup win over Portsmouth, saying: “Ainsley needs to put his head down and work hard and show me every day in training that he wants it more than anyone else, he wants to play for this club and fight for his place.”
It appears the 22-year-old has heeded the message and following some heart-to-hearts over Zoom, returned to training with new zest.
Asked if Maitland-Niles’ appearance in midfield against City was a sign that his attitude had improved, the boss, speaking in his pre-Brighton press conference, confirmed it was “much better”.
He added: “We discussed that during the lockdown. He has changed a lot of things, a lot of positive things.
“He’s a really honest kid as well. We know him from the Academy and the way he has developed here. He has all the attributes and qualities to become a really important player. It’s up to him.”
Having played the majority of his first team football at the Emirates as an emergency right-back, it’s still unclear what Ainsley can bring to central midfield and if he’s considered a serious, long-term option in the position. If that’s where he wants to play, he may feel he has to go elsewhere.
The good news is that we’re under no pressure to rush a decision. While reports surfaced this week that he’s changed agent – a telltale sign that someone has itchy feet – he’s still under contract until 2023.