Player focus: Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ under-rated display vs Preston

Squad rotation was always likely with Arsenal’s FA Cup clash away against Championship opposition, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles made his third start for the senior side this season after impressing in previous fixtures.

The 19-year-old attacking midfielder, who usually operates on the right wing but can play in a central or defensive-minded midfield role as well as right-back, started in a backline which included Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal.

With that being said, he wasn’t afforded adequate protection from his team-mates at times in the first-half and was often caught in a 2v1 situation against Aiden McGeady and Ben Pearson but managed to deal sufficiently well until the interval with Arsenal a goal behind through Callum Robinson’s strike after seven minutes.

What he did very well was show good positional awareness to stay in tandem with the backline, whilst offering his services as a viable attacking outlet on the right when running forward. He created two key passes with pinpoint crosses into the area, but neither was converted as Preston remained resolute in defence during the first 45.

He kept his passing mostly short and simple, with accuracy of 91.8%  – higher than all of Arsenal’s outfield players bar Mustafi and Gabriel throughout. Defensively, he didn’t shy away from his duties and made a whopping eight tackles during the 90 minutes to help alleviate the pressure when Preston broke on the counter-attack and looked threatening in the final third.

An interception and three clearances completed an excellent defensive display for a teenager who has been convincing when called upon to play in a position which is clearly not his preferred one further forward.

Ultimately it’s refreshing to see performances like these from a player who doesn’t mind playing elsewhere, as long as he can earn more minutes with the first-team squad if he performs to a consistently high level.

Maitland-Niles was quietly impressive at right-back in his eighth appearance for the first-team, prompting suggestions he could become Bellerín’s understudy at right-back for the immediate future. (Photo source: David Price / Getty Images

With Mathieu Debuchy and Carl Jenkinson both expected to depart the club this January, it’s likely that the 19-year-old will be seen as Hector Bellerín’s understudy in the first-team at right-back given the level of competition for places further field in attack.

Defensive contribution  5
Passing  4
Attacking intelligence  4.5
Positional awareness  4

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