When Ainsley Maitland-Niles jogged up to take Arsenal’s second spot-kick in the Community Shield shootout, he looked as if he had not a care in the world. Not a single one.
Maitland-Niles’ facial expression during the dreaded long walk was not of anxiety but bemusement, as if he already knew the outcome of the spot-kick and it was all just a waste of his time.
The ‘run-up’ before striking the ball was more of a laboured jog. The finish, a tame pass which sent Liverpool’s fearsome goalkeeper Alisson Becker the wrong way, personified the remarkable level of control and calmness which has made him such a vital asset to Mikel Arteta.
Jonathan Pearce’s famous piece of commentary following Robin van Persie’s panenka against Wolves from 2012 immediately sprung to mind: “Oh, he’s tickled it.”
If Maitland-Niles’ coolness from the spot was an ode to Arsenal’s legendary Cameroonian penalty-taker Lauren, his overall performance closely resembled the Invincibles’ other full-back, Ashley Cole.
Like the latter during his time in Arsenal’s red and white, Maitland-Niles looked equally comfortable at both ends of the pitch, keeping Liverpool’s devastating wingers at bay while providing plenty of attacking threat.
The 23-year-old’s crossing and overlapping runs past Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were especially reminiscent of Cole. The wing-back played with intensity for the whole 90 minutes, growing into the game and using his explosive pace to breeze past Liverpool’s defenders in the latter stages.
Perhaps it was fitting then that Maitland-Niles followed in the footsteps of Cole, who had over 100 caps for England, by being handed his first call-up to the national team in the wake of the match.
His effortless style has become the norm for Arsenal fans who by now are accustomed to the player’s rare composure at such a tender age. Maitland-Niles, who has scored all five of his penalties for the club in similar fashion, is often applauded for the game being all too easy for him but criticised for being too relaxed when things don’t go as planned.
— Pádraig (@afcpadraig) August 29, 2020
One thing that can’t be disputed, however, is that he’s a talent who does not seem phased by any occasion or task.
Whether it’s bullying Wilfried Zaha out of a game or nullifying the electric Adama Traore while playing in his less favoured left-wingback role, Maitland-Niles’ athleticism, intelligence and mentality mean that he succeeds in shutting down opposition wingers without a struggle.
Perhaps his greatest performance came against Riyad Mahrez in the FA Cup semi-final victory over Manchester City. When he was most under pressure to perform, Maitland-Niles closely marked the tricky Algerian, showing him inside and matching his acceleration so that Mahrez could only register a single shot throughout the game.
Such feats for a supposed winger by trade are testament to the potential ceiling of the player and how Arteta can harness his broad skill set.
A man of the match performance against Liverpool on his birthday, albeit in a fixture which doubters will pass off as nothing more than a friendly, now seems to be a huge moment in Maitland-Niles’ career.
It will either be remembered as the turning point where he truly stamped his authority and carved himself a permanent starting-role in the team, or one which he uses as leverage to earn a move elsewhere.
Following the display, fans will surely be looking at the affectionately nicknamed ‘Bird Catcher’ and wondering why Arsenal’s management have not yet tied down one of their most versatile and exciting talents to a new contract.
Whatever the club and Maitland-Niles decide to do next, this performance is surely a reminder that the Hale End academy has produced yet another gem.
By Kasra Moradi