Ainsley Maitland-Niles shows promise as Wenger trusts youth at Arsenal
Arsene Wenger has seen some great young players come through at Arsenal. He has also shown unjustifiable faith in a few others. Which makes it a bit tricky to decipher just how significant it was this week when he described Ainsley Maitland-Niles as "the future".
It was certainly a bold statement to make of a 20-year-old playing out of position and with just two Premier League starts to his name. Nevertheless, those two starts, and the eight cup appearances which preceded them this season, have revealed a player of real potential. Just how easy it will be to translate that potential into something more lasting is another question. Wenger's fading record in this regard is proof of that.
The obvious comparison for Maitland-Niles is the recently departed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was also said to be destined for a central midfield berth only to be used at wing-back and, briefly last season, at full-back too. Maitland-Niles has played in all of those positions in the past two seasons, settling in at left-back for the past two Premier League games against West Ham and Newcastle after graduating from the midweek cup team.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is a cautionary tale about how possessing flexibility can have the unintended consequence of attaching concrete blocks to your career. His difficult development was also indicative of how a number of young talents in the second half of Wenger's reign struggled to reach their full potential. But maybe there is a more promising, if rather tentative, comparison to draw.
Maitland-Niles may have played in midfield for the England team which won the Under-20 World Cup last summer and been identified by Wenger as a natural in the position, but he first came through as a winger and back in 2015 explained why his preference was to play out wide. "I prefer to play on the wing because it means that I can run at players more and use my pace to beat them, so I think I'm more effective out there," he told the club's official website.
There are some similarities here with a certain Ashley Cole, who also played in advance positions for the youth teams before slotting in at left-back for Wenger. They are imperfect similarities, admittedly. Maitland-Niles has a different kind of game and is light years away from eliciting the same kind of excitement Cole did for Arsenal.
There is also the big caveat that Cole was developed at a time when Wenger exhibited a golden touch in bringing through young players and foisting positional changes on them. But it's a comparison maybe worth monitoring as Maitland-Niles' impressive steps into first-team football continue.
It is true that his defensive work has not been without its faults -- you immediately think of the way Marko Arnautovic gave him the slip at times in the 0-0 draw against West Ham last week -- but Arsenal have kept clean sheets in the two league matches he has started. He makes good runs, is not afraid to put in a challenge and possesses blistering pace.
Perhaps these qualities are what has given him the edge over Sead Kolasinac, who following a fine start to his first season in England has now been relegated to the bench by a 20-year-old. Kolasinac was a bombastic addition to the side and in addition to his five goals and three assists in all competitions, he was averaging a shot a game over 15 matches in the Premier League. The wing-back role allowed him to play to those attacking strengths but Wenger seems rather more convinced with Maitland-Niles as a member of the back four. Perhaps due to his quicker recovery time if he is caught upfield, with two instead of three centre-backs manning the defence.
Although his output has not threatened that of Kolasinac in an attacking sense, Maitland-Niles' crossing for Olivier Giroud was one of Arsenal's most promising avenues against West Ham and one of the highlights of the 1-0 win over Newcastle saw him surge through the centre of the pitch and smash a lovely effort just wide.
Maybe it's just a phase. Maybe Wenger wants to give him a solid defensive grounding before moving him back up the pitch and into his preferred position. But for all your work in the youth ranks, you are only ever defined as a player by what you do for the senior side. And so far for Maitland-Niles, that means in the wide defensive positions.
Who knows how things will pan out? Arsenal have plenty of central midfielders but with Nacho Monreal evolving into a centre-back, there is an opportunity there for Maitland-Niles to make the left-back position his own. He might be the future, but the present looks promising too.
Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport