Arsenal

Arsenal's midfield understudies step up against Watford

Grey Whitebloom
Ainsley Maitland-Niles rose to the fore in a scrappy, bitty 1-0 win for Arsenal against Watford
Ainsley Maitland-Niles rose to the fore in a scrappy, bitty 1-0 win for Arsenal against Watford / Ryan Pierse/GettyImages
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As Mikel Arteta racked up his 100th match as Arsenal manager, the first team sheet he ever delivered as head coach naturally resurfaced.

Bukayo Saka, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette were three familiar names from the four players that had the distinction of bookending Arteta's century, but Ainsley Maitland-Niles also cropped up as the unexpected member of that quartet too.

Starting in place of the injured Thomas Partey in Arsenal's gritty 1-0 win over Watford on Sunday, Maitland-Niles lined up alongside Albert Sambi Lokonga - stepping in while Granit Xhaka continues his recovery - to form Arteta's decidedly second-choice midfield double-pivot.

Barely two months prior, Maitland-Niles' status as an Arsenal player, let alone a starter, seemed deeply dubious. As the transfer window ended, the club's academy product took the modern approach of venting his frustrations digitally (and very publicly) by posting: "All I wanna do is go where I'm wanted and where I'm gonna play."

Alongside no fewer than three crying face emojis, Maitland-Niles pointedly tagged the official Arsenal account. However, no move materialised and, going into Sunday's match, the 24-year-old had made as many Premier League starts as the long-forgotten Sead Kolasinac.

At the start of Arteta's reign, Maitland-Niles emerged as one of the team's key performers by carving out a niche role as a rampaging left wing-back. Completing the full 90 minutes in the final three rounds of that season's FA Cup, his thrust and disarming speed stretched the backlines of Manchester City and Chelsea en route to the trophy, creating space for Aubameyang to score a brace in each fixture.

Maitland-Niles almost conspired to create an opening for his Gabon goalscorer inside the opening ten minutes of the weekend's Watford win. Snapping into a tackle on the edge of the Hornets' box, Partey's replacement stabbed Lacazette into the area. The Frenchman's scooped effort was pawed to the feet of Aubameyang but he took a heavy touch into the path of an offside Saka - who finished crisply nonetheless.

In the absence of Arsenal's first-choice pairing, Maitland-Niles was granted the chance to fulfil his favoured role. “I want to play in the centre of the pitch because I feel comfortable there and there’s a lot of things I can bring by playing in the middle," he explained to the Express and Star while playing in that position on loan with West Bromwich Albion last season. "You can control the game from there and I think my attributes help me do that.”

From that central role Maitland-Nile certainly influenced proceedings in a niggling, foul-ridden scrimmage at the Emirates. No player on the pitch made more tackles (five) or interceptions (two) than Arsenal's number 15 against Watford.

Aside from defensive steel, Partey and Xhaka also serve as the chief exponents of progression up the pitch for Arsenal, averaging the most passes into the final third of any Gunner this season. While Maitland-Niles scurried around, it often fell to Sambi - the more frequently used player so far - to collect the ball from his defence and launch Arsenal's attacks.

Arteta was glowing with praise for Sambi’s swift adaptation to Arsenal’s first team pre-match. “A lot of intelligence in his game, and courage,” the manager gushed to Arsenal’s official website.

Juraj Kucka, Albert Sambi Lokonga
Albert Sambi Lokonga (right) tangled with Juraj Kucka on a number of occasions / Ryan Pierse/GettyImages

“He is a player that is constantly trying to affect the game in the right way. It was a big task to ask him to play the amount of minutes he’s played already in the league, in such a short time. But he’s showing that he’s capable of doing it, and he’s handling the situation really, really impressively.”

While it wasn't a performance without fault - Juraj Kucka robbed Arsenal's 22-year-old receiving the ball, facing his own goal, on the edge of his own penalty area to force a rare shot for the visitors in the first half - Lokonga brushed himself down and immediately made himself available for a pass again, showing that 'courage' Arteta admires in abundance.

With a third consecutive Premier League goal to win the match, Emile Smith Rowe will naturally claim the headlines, but two of Arsenal's other young midfielders came to the fore to ensure Arteta's landmark match ended with a win.


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