When Mikel Arteta made his first substitution in the 2-0 win over Wolves on Saturday, it was slightly surprising to see Ainsley Maitland-Niles replace Kieran Tierney as the left sided wing-back.
He has played on that side before, getting a run of games under Arsene Wenger, but hasn’t played there for some time. In fact, his playing time has been quite limited in general, so it was great to see him get into the game as quickly as he did, working hard to help contain the threat of the wickedly quick Adama Traore.
The 22 year old looked to be someone who was heading towards the Emirates exit door, with suggestions he’d refused to play at right back. In truth, he merely expressed his desire to play in his more favoured positions, but the return to fitness of Hector Bellerin and the arrival of Cedric Soares left him somewhat out in the cold.
However, he says he’s happy to play wherever Arteta asks him to, telling the Mail, “I didn’t mean I don’t want to play there because I would be happy to fill in and slot in and do the job anytime, anyplace.
“Obviously I do prefer playing central midfield but that is not to say I don’t want to play right-back or that I’m not going to do the job there if the manager asks me to.
“If the manager says to me ‘Ains you gotta go in goal this game I will put the gloves on and I am ready to rock n roll’.”
Maitland-Niles now has almost 100 first team appearances under his belt, and as the most senior of this new generation of Hale End graduates, he’s convinced the Academy boys have what it takes to be part of Arteta’s rebuild.
“It’s definitely possible that we can have a homegrown generation,” he said. “The players have got the talent, they have got the physicality, they’ve got the brainpower to do it.
“It’s just about whether the manager has the trust in the players to play them all at the same time and if he wants to take that big risk.
‘Maybe there will be a few mistakes, a few points cost here and there in the beginning but, in the long run, I think it will be very beneficial because these players have been playing together for years and they know each other inside out.”
Back in March, before the Covid crisis, Arteta said of Maitland-Niles, “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.”
Saturday against Wolves is a small sample size, but if that’s anything to go by, he’s willing to fight – which can only be a good thing.