Ainsley Maitland-Niles begged to leave Arsenal over the summer — but now the England international is back in Mikel Arteta’s plans and thriving.
He started his first Premier League game in almost two months as the Gunners beat Watford before the international break and came on early in the second half of last Saturday’s 4-0 defeat at Liverpool.
But transfer speculation has not gone away and there remains a nagging sense the 24-year-old could leave the Emirates.
As Arsenal prepares to host Newcastle at lunchtime, we look at what the future might hold for Maitland-Niles.
Putting the past behind him
So desperate was Maitland-Niles to leave the Emirates before the season began that he posted on social media: “All I wanna do is go where I’m wanted and where I’m gonna play.”
Yet speaking after the 1-0 win over Watford, Maitland-Niles was in no mood to dredge up that controversy.
He said: “I am just thinking about the future and what’s ahead of me. It was great to be out there today, getting my minutes, and hopefully, there is more to come.
“[I’m] always happy to be on the pitch and playing, it’s a good feeling. Of course, I’m looking for more minutes, I just need to keep my head down and keep going and working hard.”
In the boss’ plans?
While Thomas Partey’s absence has forced Arteta’s hand, Maitland-Niles was given the start against Watford over Mohamed Elneny, which suggests it was not just a token offering.
He also started Arsenal’s Carabao Cup fourth-round victory over Leeds less than two weeks earlier.
That his manager brought him off the bench with the Gunners struggling at Anfield would appear to reinforce Maitland-Niles’ insistence that all is well — he is not being used as a last resort or sent on late in games to waste time.
His involvement between now and January may tell us more but Maitland-Niles clearly is not being frozen out.
Preferred position a plus
Deployed at right-back or right wing-back so often that you could be forgiven for thinking it was his natural position, Maitland-Niles has previously stated his desire to play in central midfield.
It was for that reason he decided to join struggling West Brom on loan in January, sacrificing European football for a relegation scrap in order to get regular minutes in the middle of the park.
Speaking last season, Maitland-Niles said: “You can control the game from there and I think my attributes help me do that.
“This was a chance to show I’m capable in that midfield role rather than sitting on the bench all season.”
So it was significant that Arteta selected the five-cap England international to partner Albert Sambi Lokonga in a 4-2-3-1 system against the Hornets.
Maitland-Niles played the full 90 minutes and produced an assured, robust performance, winning eight of his 10 duels and three of five tackles.
Virtues of versatility
Arguably Maitland-Niles’ biggest issue is his versatility.
He has been so flexible to Arsenal’s needs over recent seasons that he has been unable to nail down a position to call his own.
Nonetheless, the Gunners evidently recognize the merits of his ability to operate in multiple positions.
Arteta may not regularly use a back three but it is a useful system to have in the back pocket and one the Spanish boss has employed in the past.
Having someone who can easily slot into the wing-back role — even if they do not particularly like it — is beneficial.
Summer signing Takehiro Tomiyasu is more comfortable in a traditional full-back role, whereas Maitland-Niles’ energy and drive make him an ideal wing-back candidate.
With 2.73 take-on attempted per 90 minutes (1.36 successful), he dwarfs the Japanese international’s dribbling figures.
With January just around the corner, this is a crucial period in Maitland-Niles’ Arsenal career.
Everton, who were linked with him during the summer, could come knocking once more with Seamus Coleman, 33, aging and Jonjoe Kenny out of favor under Rafa Benitez.
But increased game time with the Gunners is likely. The Africa Cup of Nations kicks off on January 9 and Party (Ghana) and Elneny (Egypt) are both likely to be involved.
Players can be called up after the Boxing Day fixtures and could be away until February 6.
With two of the club’s senior central midfielders likely to go deep in the tournament, Arteta will lean heavily on Maitland-Niles.
What a difference a year makes.