With Christmas approaching, it’s a good time to remind people you don’t always get what you want, but you must be grateful for what you receive.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles is one player who should be very grateful this festive period. The 20-year-old, a product of the Arsenal youth system, plays mostly in the midfield for the Gunners’ Under-23 side.
“Certainly his focus is better,” Wenger told Arsenal.com. “I think at the start of the season, the fact that I used him in defensive positions maybe made him realise that there’s no opening where he dreams to play but there could be an opening where he doesn’t dream to play.”
During the 2015/16 campaign, Maitland-Niles played 32 games on loan in the Championship with Ipswich Town, a spell the player says made him a man.
Apart from three games on the left of the midfield, the majority came on the opposite flank, providing two goals and two assists. It would have been unthinkable two seasons later he would be asked to subdue one of the Premier League’s most in-form forwards.
Sead Kolašinac was brought in on a free from Schalke in the summer and the Bosnian international has impressed. Settling into life at the Emirates, the 24-year-old was replaced by Maitland-Niles for the two most recent league games.
After growing up in the Bundesliga, it was thought the new left-back was being helped out with a small break to get him through his first festive period. In the Bundesliga there no games over Christmas, after all.
Ahead of Tuesday’s Carabao Cup tie it was predicted Maitland-Niles would start, leaving Kolašinac to take on Liverpool.
Surprisingly, the latter took to the pitch as the Gunners knocked out West Ham, suggesting Wenger trusts his young charge for a big game.
“It takes you a while to adapt and to realise sometimes as well that you have the needed qualities to play in these positions,” the Frenchman said. “He is thinking like a defender and that’s what you want from him.”
“It’s the quality of concentration. He has huge physical qualities as well. His recovery runs are good, he’s good in one against ones. Of course the challenge is to continue to develop, to continue to improve. He has a lot to do but when you get a chance in life, take it. That’s what you want from him now.”
To take on Salah you need strength. Most centre-backs can handle that part when he comes inside, but where they fall down is against his pace.
Arsenal have played with three at the back for most of the campaign, but injuries have seen a return to a back four. That means Maitland-Niles and Nacho Monreal will have to combine on the left-hand side to deal with Salah’s threat.
One obvious way to limit the danger is to stop the Liverpool forward receiving the ball in the final third. Maitland-Niles demonstrated his reading of the game early against Newcastle.
You can see his starting position is great, keeping in line with his other defenders. When he senses the pass across the middle he’s off in a flash, powering to intercept the ball and turn the defensive phase into an attack.
With just two touches, he uses his physical attributes to push ahead and is outside the opposition penalty area.
He shapes the ball onto his right-foot and watches as his shot sails agonisingly wide.
Really positive run from Ainsley Maitland-Niles. pic.twitter.com/EuFGHrlCz0
— Terje (@ArsenalTerje) December 16, 2017
Up against Christian Atsu – although a much different test to what he’ll face on Friday – he dived in a couple of times but mostly stayed on his feet. You can see him learning on the job, knowing he can use his strength to push the winger back, rather than be reckless.
What will be in his favour against Liverpool is Salah’s reluctance to go wide on the right. The Egyptian will look to come inside and that plays into Maitland-Niles’ hands as he is stronger on his right foot.
He can get caught out when looking to make a tackle on the outside, having to come across himself, but he will be keen to see Salah move the ball onto his left.
Although, ultimately, that doesn’t mean he can still stop him. Just like Arjen Robben, knowing what a forward is going to do isn’t always enough.
This is by far the biggest test the youngster will have faced in his new role, if Wenger gives him the nod. Arsenal’s defence struggled against the counter-attack of Manchester United and Southampton. The Gunners lacked pace, physicality and were caught out of position. Maitland-Niles instantly helps in that regard, which will be crucial against Liverpool.
A few weeks ago, throwing a young midfielder in at full-back would have seemed like the last throw of the dice from Wenger. But there is method to his madness and this defensive change could just offer the Gunners a glimmer of hope on Friday night. Although stopping Salah would still be deemed a Christmas miracle.