Arsenal’s youth academy has long been revered throughout the football world. Names that immediately spring to mind include Tony Adams, Ashley Cole, Jack Wilshere and there are also emerging talents such as Alex Iwobi or Reiss Nelson.
Every Arsenal prospect will start their career with ambitions of reaching the heights of their predecessors. Breaking into the first team becomes less of a boyhood dream and more of a reality. The next aim takes the form of charging towards fans’ beaming faces in the Clock End after netting your first senior goal. And the grandest prize of them all for academy graduates? Hurling a historic piece of silverware high above your head as club captain.
However, for every glittering career, there have been the painful reminders, the Sanchez Watts, Jay Simpsons or even the Henri Lansburys. Although some are tipped for the top and do make it there, most Arsenal prospects fail to fulfil their potential at the parent club.
Arguably, Arsenal’s most intriguing prospect of the current lot is Ainsley Maitland-Niles. He is yet to find his feet and fully establish himself in the starting XI, but has shown that he is well suited technically to the Premier League, as well as having the necessary mental fortitude to be a success.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles has part of the furniture at Arsenal for the past fifteen years. Born and raised in Ilford, North East London, he was introduced to the Hale End Academy as a six year old.
As time progressed he was fast-tracked through the age groups, featuring in the now defunct NextGen Series whilst still a schoolboy. His debut for the U21 side came just a year later when he was 17, where he proved he could hold his own against much older opposition.
A loan spell at Ipswich began in the 2015/16 season, but there were off-field incidents with then manager Mick McCarthy which marred what had been a promising start. The 2016/17 season saw Maitland-Niles introduced to first team action in the Premier League, the FA Cup and a spot on the bench in the Champions League.
His 2017/18 season was undoubtedly his best to date. He played in every minute of the Europa League group stages and seamlessly adapted to every position he was asked to play in. There were also 15 appearances in the Premier League, the high point being a terrific individual display in the engine room against Manchester United in April.
Despite his tender age, Maitland-Niles has already set himself out as a solid rotation option within the first team. Niggling injuries halted his progress at the start of the 18/19 season, but he is starting to force his way into the plans during Arsenal’s annual injury crisis.
Maitland-Niles can be the Gunner’s own Swiss army knife, as he has played in a variety of positions in his young career. There have already been strong performances at full back, wing-back and his most natural position, central midfield. This highlights the youngster’s flexibility, something that will certainly be attractive to a tactical tinkerer such as Unai Emery.
The coming seasons will certainly define Maitland-Niles’ future at Arsenal. The London lad has already started to tick off the to-do-list every academy graduate goes through. He has made it onto the outskirts of the first team, and scored his first senior goal against Liverpool this season. Will he kick on and lead the Gunners into a new era of success? Or will he regress into anonymity, assuming his place on the mantle of Arsenal’s once brightest stars that have turned to dust?