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Is Maitland-Niles Signalling The Dawn Of A Forgotten Era At Arsenal?

In the early 2000s, Arsene Wenger revolutionized the English Premier League by creating a system that propelled several youngsters to international fame and glory. Right about the time when he scripted history with his ‘Invincibles’, the French manager was renowned for signing and developing youth talent and that was a practice that every fan appreciated with pride. In a rat-race where everybody is trying to outbid each other to see who can splash more cash, Wenger trodded the path less taken and that became a major part of his legacy for the Gunners.

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It was a good set-up but ultimately even Wenger had to succumb to the pressures of signing big players in transfer windows. As the league became more money-oriented, competition grew and Arsenal had to step up their game to keep pace with the rivals. At a time when other clubs were spending exorbitantly, Arsenal focused more on using their resources to develop and train but a process like that takes time. With pressure increasing every day to perform better, the London club slipped up majorly on what made them so unique. In fact, after Jack Wilshere, there have been very few young stars that emerged out of the club.

Wilshere was set to become a young prodigy with scores of clubs chasing for his signature but a slew of injuries brought about a tragic halt to his growth. Now, at 25 years of age, his prospects do seem limited and Arsenal did not produce any notable young players after that. However, fast-forward to the 2017-18 season and we have two names that have stood out. Young stars Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles have made an immediate impact on the fans with their performances and they seem to be heralding a new era of talent at the Emirates Stadium.

Slowly but steadily, Wenger is allowing them chances to shine and both of them seem to be grasping at every opportunity to prove themselves. For the Gunners’ faithful, this is undoubtedly a deja-vu moment, even though it comes at a time when chants of ‘Wenger Out’ keep growing louder every day. After his contract extension over the summer, the fans have not been happy with him for a variety of reasons but the emergence of Nelson and Maitland-Niles seem to have subdued the frustration to an extent.

While it may seem like a mighty statement to make for a 20-year-old, who has been playing out of position with merely two or 3 league starts, it is important to note that the youngster has shown tremendous potential in his limited appearances. However, it remains to be seen if Wenger is truly able to bring the best out of Maitland-Niles in the years to come. After all, can anybody forget how things turned out with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain?

Much like Maitland-Niles, Ox was also destined to play in the central midfield but for major parts of his Arsenal career, he was used as a wing-back and even as a fullback last season. Maitland-Niles has also played in all these positions over the past two seasons which does paint a worrisome prospect. When a player is young, being versatile is a good deal but there is a fine line. Being too flexible in terms of positioning can truly hamper one’s career in the long-run. Although the current Liverpool player was a fine Arsenal talent, he ultimately had to leave the club to play in his preferred position. Arsenal cannot afford for something similar to happen with Maitland-Niles – not after the way Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s careers at the club fizzled out.

As of now, it seems like Wenger is keen on deploying Maitland-Niles as a defender – primarily as a left-back. There is nothing wrong in that and could actually help him garner defensive awareness in the future. That said, his work at the back had some spectacular moments and some not-so-spectacular ones. For example, in Arsenal’s 0-0 draw against West Ham United, the youngster proved to be no match for Marko Arnautovic, who gleefully exploited all his shortcomings. Regardless, one big sign of encouragement for Maitland-Niles will be the fact that the Gunners maintained clean sheets in the two of 3 league games he started in so far. What makes him such a good player is his speed, well-timed runs and the fact that he loves taking on challenges.

In fact, he possesses a lot of fresh energy and that is something Arsenal have been lacking on the field. Wenger seems to be particularly impressed with the youngster since he actually let summer acquisition Sead Kolasinac grace the bench during times when he chose to deploy Maitland-Niles at left-back. It is an interesting situation considering how impactful Kolasinac has been since day one.

Perhaps Wenger wants to create a solid defensive awareness for the youngster before deploying him higher up the ground but after a long time, Arsenal have an exciting young talent to watch out for. Both the club and the manager cannot afford to mess it up now and it all comes down to how Maitland-Niles wants to take it from here. He could go on to become a future Arsenal legend or go down the same road as Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain. However, he is doing great at the present and the youngster deserves full credit for the same.