ARSENAL sealed the loan signing of Southampton right-back Cedric Soares on Friday. It was an unexpected transfer, a week ago Arsenal fans weren’t talking about the need to draft short-term cover at right full-back as a priority for this window. It is in our nature, as fans, to always try to buy into the vision of a new player from the off.
It does require some mental gymnastics on our part to fully comprehend the move. It is either because Arteta sees Maitland-Niles as a midfielder now [a conclusion we’ve scant evidence for at this point], it could be that Arteta just doesn’t really see a role for Maitland-Niles at all, or else Arsenal could be taking on a Jorge Mendes client to build a future relationship with the “super-agent.” Kia Joorabchian, who has links with Edu and Raul Sanllehi, was also pictured at Soares’ Arsenal unveiling.
Soares is available on a free transfer in the summer and would therefore be available for a nominal fee now. Signing him on loan and paying a loan fee is surely a move designed to favour the agents. Soares is 28-years-old with five years of Premier League experience behind him, there is surely no need for Arsenal to put the player on a trial of sorts until the end of the season to see if they want to make the deal permanent.
“100%, I will give all my best every day and every game, I try to be a guy with energy, a player that goes up and down. It's difficult when you need to talk about yourself! But again, I will give my 100% for the team and for the fans.” pic.twitter.com/MG0DCQgiiJ
— afcSource™ (@afcSource) January 31, 2020
All will be revealed soon enough, but the capture of Soares will almost certainly diminish Maitland-Niles’ opportunities – which is not a huge scandal necessarily, it is a surprise though given how well Ainsley applied himself at right-back. There is little to no evidence that Arteta sees him undertaking a significant role in the midfield and Niles was not even part of the 18-man squad against Burnley on Sunday.
Arteta has Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi, Joe Willock and Dani Ceballos available to him already in the midfield positions. At Bournemouth last Monday, Maitland-Niles was given stoppage time to lay a claim to a midfield berth. Meanwhile, even with Torreira rested, Guendouzi, Xhaka and Willock played ahead of him and an out of favour Dani Ceballos was the first substitute Arteta called for.
Circumstances may change of course, the manager’s plans might even change, but it seems unlikely that Maitland-Niles is about to jump several places in the queue and gobble up lots of minutes in midfield. Deputising for a still recovering Hector Bellerin at right-back is certainly a clearer path to regular minutes than trying to break into a congested midfield.
On Friday, Arteta made some lukewarm noises about AMN playing in a more advanced role, “He can play as an attacking midfielder because he’s a threat every time with his runs.” The right-hand side of attack is not exactly the land of opportunity for Ainsley either, with Nicolas Pepe in the role already and Arteta making far more positive sounding comments about Reiss Nelson just a few weeks ago.
Interested in views (no, really). Given presence of Torriera, Guendouzi, Xhaka, Willock and Ceballos, how many midfield starts (all competitions) do you see Ainsley Maitland-Niles getting before the end of the season?
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) January 31, 2020
Willock finished the Bournemouth game on the right-wing to accommodate Ceballos’ introduction and even though Pepe was dropped to the bench at Turf Moor, Maitland-Niles was not considered, with Gabriel Martinelli moving over to the right hand side. These aren’t the actions of a manager warming Maitland-Niles up for a new position.
It could be, of course, that Arteta sees Maitland-Niles’ ball-winning qualities as a closer fit for the role Torreira is currently playing. At this stage of his career, Maitland-Niles has barely played in central-midfield at all, so this is all based in theory at the moment, but the manager’s selection over the last two games tells us it’s more likely that he is being phased out.
Arteta did also talk about the team becoming more multi-faceted, "With more time I would like to have specialists for every position to do exactly what we want to do. They [Maitland-Niles and Saka] have been really helpful so why not, they can still play in those positions (full-back) but naturally they are other type of players."
That makes a certain amount of sense, for Maitland-Niles, on an individual level, it’s difficult to believe that Arsenal’s January transfer business represented good news for him. Whatever his new role in the collective, it seems to be a step down from deputy / regular rotation option at right-back. He faces a real fight to increase his prominence in the squad; otherwise, he might have to start prepping the groundwork for a summer transfer.